In the Loop: Time Freak

It’s a joke now that we’ve all been repeating the same day over and over for more than a year now. I had been thinking about this and also my unapologetic love of time loop movies.

Welcome to In the Loop, a project where I will write about time loop movies (and on occasion, TV shows) once a week.

Note: I will be writing about all of these movies as if you’ve seen them, so spoilers ahead!

Time Freak (2018, directed by Andrew Bowler)

  • Time until the loop begins: 2.5 minutes
  • The cause of the loop/inciting incident: Time machine!
  • Number of time loops: There were 25 very early on and then I stopped counting
  • Lessons learned: Life is not yours to control

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Very late in Time Freak, Debbie (Sophie Turner) yells at Stillman (Asa Butterfield), “My life is mine and it doesn’t belong to you.!” This is after she’s learned that Stillman has basically manipulated her for decades (60-70 years, he said) by using the time machine he created to go back in time to remove any source of conflict between them as a couple. We just spent about 90 minutes watching Stillman take away Debbie’s agency for his own purposes and it feels a bit too little too late.

But oh, this is supposed to be a romantic dramedy instead of disturbing.

I don’t really understand who this movie is for. We’re supposed to be on Stillman’s side as he revisits the bad moments during his year-long relationship with Debbie and attempts to fix them but even early on, that feels incredibly obsessive and invasive. Butterfield does play him with a sweet cluelessness, but there’s still a sinister undercurrent of manipulative selfishness. He never seems to care about what Debbie wants, just what he wants — which is only to stop her from breaking up with him.

We never get to see much of Debbie’s inner life. We know she’s a musician (she plays a couple of slight but charming songs in the movie) and someone who is a seeker. There’s an allusion to some hardships in her life. But we only ever get to see her through Stillman’s eyes. It’s never that clear what attracts her to Stillman, other than he seems to know what he wants out of life. They just seem like very different people and while certainly relationships like that can work, it doesn’t feel surprising that Debbie would break up with him after a year.

Hence Stillman’s time-machine manipulations are never quite presented in the villainous light they should be.

Because this movie wants you to think it’s funny! Stillman has a stoner sidekick named Evan (Skyler Gisondo). The two travel through time together and there are hijinks! Hijinks such as Evan’s insistence on winning an Ultimate Frisbee championship — a sequence that goes on much longer than it needs to. (I have seen the original short film this movie was based on, which seemed to be a more straight-up comedy. Evan seems leftover from that.)

There are vague hints that something might go badly — Stillman’s app that controls the time machine (just go with it) keeps crashing or locking up but that doesn’t particularly seem to matter that much in the end.

Time Freak definitely takes a fairly dark turn in the last act as we jump forward two years. Stillman and Debbie are married, but she increasingly feels like a flattened version of herself and she doesn’t know why. Stillman doesn’t really seem to care because he has his perfect life. Well, he doesn’t care until he does. The shift doesn’t really work.

It does seem like quite a bit happened in these two years — yes, Stillman is some kind of science genius, but wow do they live in a fancy house for young twentysomethings. I think going further into the future would’ve worked but both Turner and Butterfield (especially) look so young in this movie I realize it wasn’t going to be plausible for it to be 5-10 years in the future.

I am glad Debbie learned the truth and called Stillman out. But the romantic ending — regardless of how bittersweet it was — didn’t really work. Stillman had decades with Debbie. Debbie had her free will taken from her. I wanted a clearer ending where we got to see Debbie making her own choices. I wanted to feel like Stillman faced consequences for his actions. I wanted a movie without Evan.

Or really, I think what this movie should’ve been was different than the one we ended up with. This just felt like a movie without a clear sense of its audience or even its own perspective.

Next week on June 15: Russian Doll

In the Loop logo by Sarah Burnett. If you’d like to support this project, buy one of my Polaroids.