The fleeting and elusive nature of love is something that people have struggled with throughout the years. Relationships come and go. In the aftermath we’re left to wonder what could’ve done differently to keep the flames of passion burning. But we’re not able to go back and change the past. That is unless you’re in the new film from writer-director Andrew Bowler, Time Freak. The film attempts a kind of romcom take on a relationship affected by time travel but it fails to connect as it strains to make the stalker-ish behavior of its lead character charming and well-intentioned, often at the expense of the film’s female lead.
The first time we see Stillman (Asa Butterfield) and Debbie (Sophie Turner), the young woman is teary eyed as she’s trying to break up with him. The scenario plays out over and over, with Stillman trying his best to find the right words to maneuver out of the inevitable. You see, Stillman is a physics prodigy and he has created a time machine which he uses from his smart phone to relive moments of failure or extend moments of glory. Stillman brings in his best friend Evan (Skyler Gisondo) with him on his journeys through time. Along the way Stillman tries to correct every misstep in his relationship with Debbie as Evan picks up little bits of wisdom to pull himself out of his self-made stoner rut. There’s just one problem: All of this tinkering with time creates new problems that must be rectified and then those create new problems that must be rectified and the cycle continues.
The biggest problem within Time Freak is the fact that Stillman is fundamentally incapable of seeing beyond himself for much of the film’s running time. His actions, let’s be honest here, are extremely creepy. By traveling back in time and fixing his own mistakes he’s taking away agency from Debbie. It’s not a Groundhog Day situation where this character is trapped reliving these moments. These are choices made by this young adult character and the film mostly plays it off as if it’s some kind of endearing puppy dog love.
It’s harder to connect to Stillman and his actions actions as he and Evan cavort through the past because Bowler’s script is really uninterested in making Debbie much of a character. She’s a real Manic Pixie Dream Girl, one who has worked as an incompetent bartender and has dreams of a career in music. Stillman is completely enamored with her but there’s not much behind the character beyond this surface affection. It’s not until the end of the movie that Bowler confronts these issues and allows Sophie Turner’s character to break this tired mold. Then it’s too little too late. The film concludes with Debbie confronting Stillman for his time manipulation and thus manipulation of her in what seems to be a moment that the Bowler’s film has a breakthrough about its more troubling aspects only to do a complete U-turn with a happy ending and a passionate kiss at sunset.
Time Freak is an ambitious work from a young filmmaker. However, the film plays on a few tired romcom tropes and never does much to subvert them. Asa Butterfield is a strong young actor and Sophie Turner does her best with a paper-thin character, but it’s hard to become engaged in a movie that plays off the creepy, unsettling behavior of its protagonist as a symbol of his unending devotion. Time Freak is so close to cleverly playing within the more troubling aspects of its story that it becomes disappointing when it completely punts on confronting these issues.
Time Freak has a character with advanced technology that allows him to travel back and forth through time to correct his past mistakes, but the film focuses on creepy behavior as an endearing trait, employing a trope that should’ve been left in the past.