What if you could do it all over again? It’s a common question in time travel stories, with varying results. The reason why is often the same: to prevent the end of the world. From The Terminator to Tenet, time travel movies are often been defined by high stakes and set pieces. Even Bill and Ted have the weight of the world on their slumped shoulders.
But occasionally we’re treated to more self-contained time travel narratives. Films like Triangle, About Time, and Happy Death Day use time travel as vehicle for personal growth and revelation. In 2019, one such self-contained time travel film slid mostly under the radar. While it isn’t as flashy as its peers, it is anchored by strong performances and an emotional core defined by love — maybe the highest stake of them all.
Don’t Let Go centers on Detective Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo), an L.A. police officer who manages to balance work with being a positive influence in the life of his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid). Ashley’s father Garret Radcliff (Brian Tyree Henry) is a former drug dealer and addict who’s seemingly turned his life around but suffers from manic episodes. Her mother Susan (Shinelle Azoroh) is too often forgetful of her responsibilities, like picking her daughter up on time.
Despite their best intentions, Garret and Susan can’t be the parents Ashley needs. As a result, Ashley becomes the child Jack never had time to have. But Jack’s world is shattered by the brutal murders of Garret, Susan, and Ashley. The crime scene points to a botched drug deal, but Jack believes it was staged. As he deals with his overwhelming grief and starts digging into the murders, something strange happens. It begins with a phone call.
Jack receives a call from Ashley’s phone. His first inclination is to think someone stole her phone from evidence lock-up. But the truth is more complicated. When he answers, it’s Ashley on the line, yet she has no memory of her murder, and she talks about her parents as if they’re still alive. Jack initially believes he’s talking to a ghost until he realizes the Ashley he’s talking to is one two weeks before the murders. With Ashley working in the past and Jack working in the present, the two try to uncover the cause behind the murders — and a mysterious drug kingpin named Georgie who may be involved.
The narrative gets even weirder. Ashley’s actions in the past change Jack’s mystery and fate in the present, which can overcomplicate this already complicated stori. But even when the film threatens to get bogged down by details, Jack and Ashley’s relationship keeps it moving forward and provide audiences with a reason to care. The mystery of Georgie, drug deals gone bad, and corrupt cops is unwieldy, but the sheer ambition of the time travel element in a small budget picture like this one begs for some allowances to made.
Another aspect that makes Don’t Let Go a worthwhile watch is its colorblind casting. It’s clear the story could have been built around a white cast, yet except for Alfred Molina (Jack’s boss Howard), the cast is entirely Black. It’s not an element of the narrative, simply a result of casting and allowing Black actors to fulfill the roles they aren’t always approached for.
It feels significant to see a Black cast in a genre film that isn’t concerned with race. It’s a factor I hope to see a lot more of going forward and adds a layer of significance to Don’t Let Go beyond its time travel elements.
The marketing Don’t Let Go sold it as a horror movie and leaned into its Blumhouse producers, but this isn’t horror. Going into the film knowing that makes for a more enjoyable experience and allows Don’t Let Go to be judged for what it is doing, rather than what it’s not. For the most part, this is a crime drama with neo-noir elements. While the time travel aspect enhances the stake and proves to be integral, it never breaks the grounded nature of this world.
There’s no explanation for why the fabric of time is broken — whether it’s an act of God or some glitch in reality — and it never extends beyond Jack and Ashley. This is time travel not based on how it happened but why it happened, and the why (the unconquerable power of love), is compelling without being schmaltzy.
Don’t Let Go might not reach the heights of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but even here, the idea that love transcends dimensions of time and space is pretty damn compelling.
Don’t Let Go is currently streaming on HBO Max in the U.S.