Romantic yearning is a feeling with which almost everyone can readily identify. We have all wanted at some point to pause or rewind the clock. To that end, love stories spanning space and time are common enough to support their own expansive cinematic sub-genre, encompassing everything from Groundhog Day, Kate & Leopold, The Lake House, and Midnight In Paris to The Time Traveler’s Wife, About Time, Palm Springs, and many, many more.
The malleability of the concept, already a great way to amplify the emotionality of regret and heartache, supports all sorts of flourishes or quirks, whether in the form of split timelines, time-loop affairs, or more straightforward and air-quote conventional indulgences of repeated returns to the past. Debut feature director Greg Björkman’s Press Play falls into the latter camp. Detailing a grief-stricken young woman’s attempts to save her boyfriend’s life with a mixtape that can transport her back in time, the film is an evocative and altogether pleasant conjuring of the consuming nature of young love that serves as both a nice showcase for its up-and-coming stars and an exploration of the swirl of grief.
Set in Hawaii, Press Play baits the intrigue of its premise with a short cold open in which Laura (Clara Rugaard) disappears from a locked room just as her concerned friend Chloe (Lyrica Okano) finally bursts in. From there the movie takes viewers back to Chloe’s introduction of Laura to her stepbrother Harrison (Lewis Pullman), and a blossoming romance built around a shared love of music.
Laura is an aspiring painter and artist. Harrison, uncertain about following in the footsteps of his physician father, is working at a record store owned by Cooper (Danny Glover). The pair’s affection is playful, and their love fortifying. After Harrison is hit and killed by a car, Laura is shattered.
Four years later, she’s still stuck in neutral. When an unfinished mixtape chronicling her burgeoning relationship with Harrison comes back into her life, and she discovers it can transport her back in time to various moments where they shared each song, Laura becomes gripped by the chance to save the love of her life. She convinces Harrison of the validity of her claim of being from the future, but still finds each trip back to him fruitless—in addition to sometimes changing the lives of others around her.
Shot on location in Oahu, Press Play effectively leverages various outdoor settings to increase its production value. Cinematographer Luca Del Puppo makes nice use of natural lighting in many scenes, but also finds room for engaging contrast, for example, with the blue-purple ambience of a first-date concert sequence.
Built around a well-curated dream pop soundtrack (artists include Japanese Breakfast, Father John Misty, Dayglow, Will Joseph Cook, and more), Press Play has a smart, simple hook (seven songs on the tape ostensibly mean seven attempts to reverse Harrison’s death), and doesn’t waste a lot of time grappling with time-travel specifics, other than establishing that for people other than Laura listening to the tape doesn’t catapult them back in time.
Without giving away any particular narrative twists, suffice it to say that Laura and Harrison’s efforts to prevent his death do not instantly resolve themselves. Because of this, Press Play eventually sidles into more philosophical and perhaps even esoteric territory. The movie doesn’t cede its romantic thrust, which remains the primary focus. But in Laura’s struggle and denials (after she is advised multiple times that maybe it’s best to enjoy the brief allowances of reconnection with Harrison rather than focusing on attempting to alter and extend their shared timeline), the film becomes a vessel which easily accommodates a larger metaphorical reading of the messiness and intensely personal nature of grief—be that losing a loved one suddenly or coping with the reality of someone slowly losing their grasp on shared familiarities.
Can one save oneself through saving others? Is setting someone free, even if you know it means a terrible outcome for several people, really the best way to honor love? As Laura relives her pain (and copes with it in many ways increasing) Press Play asks these questions and more, although largely in a way that is implicit.
To its credit, the film is honest enough to include a pointed conversation between Chloe and Laura in which the former vents about not merely losing her brother, but her best friend. But the screenplay, co-written by director Björkman with James Bachelor, from a story by Josh Boone, also feels like it leaves more than a bit of meat on the bone, as its scant 85-minute running time would support. The very plotted downhill momentum the movie achieves in its home stretch comes at the cost of a deeper sink-in into more melancholic feeling and rumination.
It’s fair, and pretty obvious, that this avenue isn’t Björkman’s chosen primary route. But there’s more meaning, and emotional connection, to be found in mood, if only he fully trusted his ambitious instincts. And this frustration is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that he so clearly has two talented and dialed-in leads who could’ve delivered without sacrificing the movie’s love story.
It’s a pleasure to watch young actors connect to the text of material, the bigger themes it’s assaying, as well as one another, and both Pullman (Bad Times At The El Royale) and Rugaard (I Am Mother) do that here. The latter effectively drives the action, in highly sympathetic fashion. But it’s the hyper-present receptivity of Pullman, who in his young career has already showed impressive range in a variety of supporting performances, which grounds this film.
Press Play is a smart melding of high-concept and relatable romance—not the least of which is because this type of young love has a high replay value, just like the music we often associate with and attach to these formative years. Mostly, though, there’s a soulfulness in the performances of Pullman and Rugaard—each playing the connection, not just an intense attraction—which effectively plusses this story, and grows the movie into something beyond just a star-crossed love story.