If you’re looking for a sci-fi staple that’s both time tested, yet refreshingly new when properly executed, time travel is a can’t miss prospect. Though at this point, even the sub-genres of that particular chestnut are starting to become a bit more familiar, which is readily apparent in writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes’ latest film, Don’t Let Go.
A movie that trades on a familiar theme, Estes’ story is a little lacking when it comes to the central mystery that occupies its framework. What’s missing in terms of plot is somewhat made up for with key performances by the project’s cast, as well as the tension that the procedurally-rooted aspects generate with great ease.
Don’t Let Go focuses on Detective Jack Radcliff (David Oyeowo) and his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid). An inseparable pair, Jack is sort of a second father to Ashley, taking care of her whenever her parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Shinelle Azoroh) are unable to. One night, all three are murdered, leaving Jack in a state of inconsolable grief. But he’s given a chance to undo their fate when a call from the past connects the detective with his deceased niece, creating a small window to solve the murder and prevent it from ever happening.
At the heart of a story like Don’t Let Go, there needs to be a crime that’s at the very least laid out in proper, solvable fashion. Through a caper that might be predictably solved in the first or early second act, the investigation angle can be used to tell the right tale full of captivating characters working the case.
This leads us to the major failing in Estes’ script, as the whodunnit that Don’t Let Go hangs its hat on makes some massive missteps. Most notable is the fact that there aren’t enough clues that set up later revelations that are eventually made within the movie. There’s a lot of sleuthing shown on screen, that’s for sure, but the results are telegraphed sharply in earlier scenes, only to be confirmed point blank when it’s time to wrap things up.
Rather than laying breadcrumbs and a web of connection between all parties concerned, Don’t Let Go chooses to yell the answers at the audience. It yells them loudly, with barely enough exposition to make it all work. One of the possibilities that the audience is supposed to consider is that Brian Tyree Henry’s character, Garret, may have killed his own family due to longstanding mental health issues.
The plot barely mentions that fact when it’s most convenient, with the rest of the action making limited use of that particular story branch. Not only are key facts like those omitted largely from Don’t Let Go’s accelerated first act, where proper set-up would have been key to the payoffs that are attempted later on, but Henry is barely in the movie enough to even convey those facts through a context rich performance. You’re just supposed to go with that assumption once it’s thrown at you, without question.
There’s even one last minute red herring that is only included in Don’t Let Go’s plot structure for the briefest moment of misdirection. By that point, you’ve already solved the murder and you’re being encouraged to second guess yourself for a single second. After which, the film tells you that you were, indeed, correct.
However, it’s because of the sterling performances between David Oyelowo and Storm Reid as uncle and niece that Don’t Let Go actually works to a point. Even then, it’s a tale that’s better off as an emotional drama rather than a time travel thriller. Stretches of Jacob Aaron Estes’ narrative are charged with a humanity that makes you root for Jack and Ashley to set it all right, if only so they can be happy again.
It’s in that story that Don’t Let Go truly invests its heart, and if there was no procedural aspect at all, the finished product might have worked better. Watching Oyelowo and Reid having the phone conversations crucial to this story’s structure is a delight, as their familial chemistry is so well refined, you never question them being connected over the phone.
With casting like that, you could have had them sitting in separate rooms the whole time, feeding each other information until they cracked the caper. Instead, we’re treated to action sequences and other diversions that try to make the investigation more exciting than it actually is, in the hopes that we won’t notice the gaps.
All told, the running time of 103 minutes isn’t part of either the breezy running time club we’ve seen occupy the summer box office, nor is it an overly long film that feels like too many cooks were in the kitchen. Don’t Let Go isn’t a film that runs too fast through its payload, but it’s also not meandering around without a point.
There was enough time for this movie to do what it set out to do, but from a thematic standpoint, it wastes its chance at doing just that. With a title that asks its audience to hold on tightly, there’s not too much to wrap your arms around with Don’t Let Go. But what’s in reach of the audience’s grasp is entertaining enough that it’s not a total write off.
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