Jacob Estes’ time-travel caper feels like an uncredited remake, which makes its flaws stand out even more starkly.
Of the 125+ new releases I’ve reviewed so far this year, several have aped on more established films of decades past. Greta and Ma did the Mommie Dearest shtick; The Prodigy recycled tropes from The Omen, Exorcist III, and more. Even some of my favorites of the year, like High Life, wouldn’t exist without the seminal works of their respective genres. What I haven’t seen so far, though, is an uncredited remake, a movie that is—from premise to characters to execution—something from years ago. The first 2019 release to fit that bill is Don’t Let Go.
That isn’t to say that it’s an awful film; it’s that its DNA is too similar to grow into its own organism, and when it does, it loses all bearings. Remember 2000’s Frequency? Written by Toby Emmerich, it followed a New York City detective (Jim Caviezel) who lost his parents (Dennis Quaid and Elizabeth Mitchell) in a fire. After some sort of phenomenon lets the son connect with his late father via a HAM radio, the former tries to save the latter’s life despite 30 years separating them. It sets on a butterfly effect (no pun intended) and sci-fi melodrama ensues.
It’s the same thing in Jacob Estes’s film, but this time the roles are superficially flipped. David Oyelowo plays Jack, an LA detective who looks after his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid). After Ashley and her parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Shinelle Azoroh) are found murdered with drugs strung about, Jack starts getting phone calls from his dead niece, and you know why? Because she’s calling from three days in the past. It feels so familiar that part of me waited for a “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” gag, but alas, that would require self-awareness.
Estes, who shares a story by credit with Drew Daywalt, cakes his script in seriousness. There’s no real sense of joy here, and while that’d be fine in a sharper movie, Don’t Let Go can’t wrangle its threads into anything too satisfying. A lot of the issues come from the pacing: almost the first third of the film establishes the setup without developing any of the characters. There’s little attention to pathos, no care to establish a sense of place. Estes’s version of Los Angeles might as well be anywhere.
In a way, his characters are as bland as the setting he’s created. Jack and Ashley’s relationship plays like a byproduct of the premise than the other way around. Ashley’s parents are the other side of the coin: their very existence feels collateral, wasting Henry’s talents and rendering Azoroh’s role as pointless. The dynamics live and die on spoken exposition. Setups are clear from a mile away, and while this is partially due to Estes’s writing, it’s also because he tells instead of shows.
Like how his lack of geography reduces LA to wallpaper, his mise-en-scène keeps audiences at arm’s length. Bedrooms, rivers, warehouses—Estes and DP Sharone Meir (Whiplash) plop us into locales without establishing motifs to differentiate the time periods at hand. As a result, editors Billy Fox & Scott D. Hanson remain at the mercy of Estes’s coverage—and lots of phone conversations. The visuals mistake handheld camerawork for real tension, much like how the script relies on dumb decisions to maintain momentum.
Estes’s version of Los Angeles might as well be anywhere.
Granted, I had a lot of questions throughout Don’t Let Go. (The biggest one, however, was, “Why don’t Jack and Ashley video chat instead of clumsily explaining their surroundings?” It’d make their journeys a hell of a lot easier.) Rather, Estes has thrown together a thriller that becomes more fun in the last third. This isn’t because it gets better, though: it’s because it shifts into a completely different movie. While Don’t Let Go spends almost the entire runtime awkwardly cutting between uncle and niece à la Frequency, it then ditches that.
Instead, Estes redirects his efforts at cobbling together the pieces of an LA crime saga. Those obvious setups from earlier on make for some truly risible comebacks while the sudden shift in tone allows audiences to laugh with the movie. But where was this 70 minutes ago? Where was this facetiousness when the writer/director made us watch people talk on the phone in comically opaque terms?
You know what? It’s better not to ask. It isn’t like the movie has many of its own answers anyways. It has more than a few moments of boredom, sure, and it even happens upon some unintentional laughs. If nothing else, Don’t Let Go is a bizarre way to tell us that, yes, it is Labor Day weekend at the movies.
Don’t Let Go dashes into theaters August 30.