The phenomenon of memories evoked by songs is irresistible. It only takes a few chords or notes. Be it Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Rob Gordon from High Fidelity, or any of us in real life, people hear a cherished track and their brain bursts with recall to the time, place, mood, and people that accompany the musical memory. We all have songs that take us back, from the classic and blissful to the somber and weird. The sunny and serendipitous new romantic drama Press Play turns that rush into a catalyst for out-of-body time travel.
Before we chase the spinning clocks and musical scale of Press Play, we have two young twenty-something Hawaiians looking to figure out their next steps without significant others. Laura, played by Clara Rugaard of I Am Mother, is a talented and aspiring painter close to beginning a year-long fellowship at a prestigious local art school. She gets prodded by her match-making best friend Chloe (Runaways cast member Lyrica Okano) to go out with her stepbrother Harrison. Played by Top Gun: Maverick’s Lewis Pullman, Harrison works at Lost and Found Records run by Danny Glover’s sagely Cooper when he’s not surfing or preparing for medical school.
Over a Japanese Breakfast song and concert first date, Laura and Harrison hit it off quickly and become inseparable. Their differing career plans threaten their future, yet fail to deter their burgeoning love and connection. Being the more bohemian music fan of the two, Harrison begins to make a cassette mixtape chronicling their relationship’s peaks and valleys.
Call it a mild Millennial nod to analog sentimentality if you must, but the use of mixtapes in Press Play counts as an extremely lovely bit of charm. To see the walls of Cooper’s shop lined with submitted or retrieved mixtapes multiplies the specialness of their existence and creation. Better than a Spotify or YouTube playlist built on clicks and whims, a good old-fashioned and hand-recorded cassette tape requires dedicated planning and passionate input. Like the person you share the mixtape with, the result is something personally valuable, tangible, and irreplaceable.
The mixtape becomes the light science fiction wrinkle of Press Play. Whenever Laura pops in their cassette and turns her Walkman on, electrified magic occurs. Her consciousness jumps back into her past self during the precise moment when the personally-curated songs became inspirational for the couple. The leaps of time go back years, and here’s the real rub, to when Harrison was still alive after being tragically killed on his birthday by a drunk driver.
Like most time travel movie scenarios, butterfly effects of unintentional changes and flawed ramifications in Press Play jostle our central characters. The tape does not rewind. Debut director Greg Björkman and writing partner James Bachelor stretch out a story by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) to where Laura has one sole playthrough and timeline to make the most of the revived and lyrical minutes. The movie dabbles with soulmate fate to ask, “is the future inevitable or do we have a say?”
With this tape, Laura has a series of second chances to either relive moments for closure or attempt to fix what she believes can be prevented. Audiences too will undoubtedly wrestle with what they would do with this kind of power or opportunity, especially with its unique and narrowed premise that links and blends redux moments to the memories of songs. They will close their eyes, hear their own songs from Lesson #1 again, and mentally play out scenarios of selfish hope and love differently alongside Laura.
Press Play rightfully roots for our approachable lovers. She’s not a superficial stunner, he’s not an empty stud, and both actors are believably playing their ages, breaking a trend for the usual “summer of young love” subgenre. Clara Rugaard plays this woman, challenged by emotional loss, with a mature strength beyond what is too often the default setting of weepy helplessness. Not to be outmatched, Lewis Pullman balances her with an understated, yet effectual charisma. While not breaking thermometers with steamy escapades, their united glow is plenty magnetic and passionate. Add in the gorgeous Hawaiian skies and topography captured by cinematographer Luca Del Puppo, coincidentally working on his second scenery-rich shoot this year after the North Carolina beauty of Along for the Ride, and the movie has a cozy pleasantness that is hard to knock.
The very same geniality and infatuation within the narrative can be assigned to Press Play’s suave soundtrack. Eldad Guetta’s piano-forward score supports and a track list from music supervisors Leah Harrison and Season Kent filled with promising artists like Dayglow, Amy Stroup, Father John Misty, Ashley Jane, and Slowdrive. Japanese Breakfast is blowing up right now, so to have Press Play nab them for an on-screen concert performance and their single “Boyish” is quite the chart-topping coup. Without the peppy energy and alluring vibe of these songs, the draw of the movie’s romance goes nowhere. Take a chance on this one. You will find something for your eyes and ears to love.