If nothing else, the new Netflix production Look Both Ways gives the Groundhog Day formula a much-needed break. For a while, a Groundhog-like time-loop scenario was the go-to device for applying a light sense of the fantastical to stories about choices, fate, and relationships. There seemed to be at least one time-loop movie for each streaming service: Palm Springs, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, Boss Level, Naked, and so on. Look Both Ways instead borrows from 1987’s Blind Chance, a Krzysztof Kieślowski movie where a young man catching or missing a train creates parallel timelines with very different lives. (It was reenvisioned in America as the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors.) The branching incident for Look Both Ways isn’t a train, though: It’s the outcome of a graduation-season hookup between college friends Natalie (Lili Reinhart) and Gabe (Danny Ramirez).
When Natalie feels sick on graduation night, she takes a pregnancy test. In one timeline, it’s a false alarm, and she proceeds with her “five-year plan,” which involves moving to Los Angeles with her bestie Cara (Aisha Dee) and pursuing her dream of becoming a professional animator. In the other, Natalie is pregnant, and she moves to Texas to live with her parents (Andrea Savage and Luke Wilson), throwing herself into co-parenting with a nearby (but not exactly romantically involved) Gabe.
Like other “what if this happened differently” thought-experiment movies, Look Both Ways is an opportunity to explore the vagaries of life choices both major and minor. But this film skims across the surface of those choices, philosophizing with all the zip, vigor, and intelligence of a flavorless rom-com. Or rather, two flavorless rom-coms: One has Natalie doing a sincere and charmless “will they end up together or won’t they” with Gabe, the drummer in what appears to be a Fun cover band. The other has her drawn to fellow Los Angeles film-world professional Jake (David Corenswet).
Director Wanuri Kahiu does come up with a visual innovation for the two-roads-diverged film formula: She cuts the two timelines together quickly, speeding up the usual alternating-segments structure. Occasionally, she lets images overlay, creating a kind of temporal split-screen. Increasing the frequency of the jumps between timelines lends Look Both Ways a quick pace and a bit of rhythmic unpredictability. The latter is something the movie’s script grievously lacks.
Both storylines are mildly compelling in a soap opera sort of way, but the scenes in April Prosser’s screenplay often feel like reactions, rather than dramatizations. Some plot happens, then characters talk extensively about how it made them feel. It’s narrative as a particularly shallow therapy session. At the center of all this solipsistic fretting, Reinhart has trouble selling either side of Natalie. Both the creative go-getter who needs to push herself past disappointment and the harried mom trying to maintain a semblance of her old self have an overemphatic, shiny-plastic quality, lacking even the expressive cartoonishness of her work in the more ridiculously heightened atmosphere of Riverdale.
More discomfiting is the growing suspicion that the filmmakers think they’re tackling some tough yet relatable issues, like the construction of those whimsically illustrated five-year plans that seem to exist primarily in movies about people who plan too much. The movie’s cutesiness borders on insulting whenever it blunders into harder choices. Granted, it’s probably pointless to complain about movies not giving full consideration to abortion when pregnancy is meant as the story engine. If one version of Natalie ends her pregnancy, there isn’t an obvious catalyst for her divergent fates.
But it’s worth pointing out just how weak-willed Look Both Ways is when it comes to explaining why, exactly, Natalie decides to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term at 22 and commit to full-time mothering, seemingly against her own plans and desires. The movie is too squeamish to have Natalie express any explicitly pro-life beliefs, or to even mention the word “abortion.” Say what you will about films like Juno being misinterpreted as anti-abortion — at least it has the guts to say the word out loud. In an era where abortion rights are being actively legislated away, the pretense that terminating a pregnancy isn’t even an option worth considering or discussing feels like exactly the wrong message for the moment.
So Natalie shrugs her way through a life-altering event, saying things like “This is what was supposed to happen,” so she can have some later scenes where she talks about being tired and worried, or pay some lip service to the joys of parenthood. And the movie is no more attentive toward that parenthood once it actually exists. Her child is treated as a plot device that’s ultimately no more consequential than if she chose a particular job, or a particular roommate.
That may ultimately be the movie’s strange, hollow point: Natalie is the same person in both of these divergent multiverses, equally capable of taking different paths and overcoming different obstacles, to achieve different forms of personal satisfaction. The more downbeat side of movies like Sliding Doors or Melinda and Melinda is smoothed over in an attempt to erase any sense of dichotomy between the two roads ahead of Natalie. The resulting message, though, is shallow feel-good fluff: “Childless or young mom, coupled or singleton, dream job or side hustle, it’s all more or less interchangeable on this crazy journey we find ourselves on!”
Look Both Ways has nothing meaningful to say about any of the subjects it’s supposedly addressing. Even when the filmmakers get little details right (Natalie’s animation references are spot-on and very convincing), the movie is playing the supportive friend to its audience, patting viewers on the back and talking about how everything happens for a reason, and it’ll all turn out great. Then, a few minutes later, it gets back to the important part: talking endlessly about itself.
Look Both Ways is streaming on Netflix now.