EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like “This Time” might not exist.
This Time finds young hearts still beating in aging chests, but dancing to those rhythms risks finding one another out of step. In an era of increasingly nostalgic cinema, it’s interesting to see a film question the quality of wistful reflections. Even if the past is as rosy as recollections imply, This Time reminds that then may not be compatible with now.
The movie begins with the May 1998 riots of Indonesia. Families flee as the country fractures. Roughly two decades later, Laela Sagan played by Leila Perry (Filthy Animals) is an artist living in Los Angeles. While out and about, she happens to reunite with Colin Lang portrayed by Ken Kirby (TV’s Good Trouble). Once high school sweethearts, the Jakarta riots ripped them apart. Unable to resist reconnecting, they soon find themselves star-crossed lovers risking fresh heartache.
The bulk of This Time orbits their reunion. Leila Perry and Ken Kirby strolling and conversing through L.A. easily calls to mind Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Vienna. While such obvious influences help move the movie along, they also keep This Time from being its own film. Yet, the overarching theme of nostalgia occasionally makes such instances oddly charming. Colin and Laela are children of the 1990s, so it makes sense when their world mirrors past pop culture. Even the soundtrack sounds like a faithful recreation of the era without famous needle drops.
Such nostalgic entanglements are beneficial for a film about reminiscing and reconnecting. Granted, those feelings may not hit quite as hard for anyone born after the 1990s. Yet, This Time still makes interesting points. The film does a great job of conveying how its main characters have global connections through things like pop references while still belonging to a uniquely specific culture, sometimes expressing this smartly such as when Laela finds an old concert T-shirt only available in one corner of the world.
That said, the driving force of the narrative isn’t so much the past but how the characters have changed over time. This Time is a dialogue-heavy film which the lead performers ably carry. Perry and Kirby do a great job of expressing joy or displeasure depending on what their reunion reveals. Occasionally it seems like the quality of their performances dips, but perhaps they’re supposed to seem awkward. Still, when moments matter most, the acting deserves distinction. Leila Perry is particularly great in some scenes which have no lines, conveying more in those moments than words can.
Although This Time is well assembled there isn’t much cinematically that makes it stand out. Granted, some shots show signs of more visual storytelling. One scene involving outdoor dining is an excellent example of this, creating that sense of being alone in a moment while the world goes on all around. However, overall, the movie is a straightforward presentation.
While this approach keeps things grounded, the lack of stylization holds This Time back. The occasional flair suggests a director willing to take risks, but for whatever reasons (probably budgetary) held back. The result is a movie which isn’t terribly unique visually, though it does offer signs of potential for future projects to bear fruit.
Another misstep is the handling of Kerusuhan Mei 1998 as backstory. This momentous occasion in Indonesian history resulted in massive protests, epic violence, and civil unrest that changed the country forever. Evacuated with their privileged parents, the lead characters escape the chaos, but sadly lose contact with one another. The problem throughout This Time is there isn’t a real sense of how much this event contributes to the characters’ different personal evolutions. Dialogue infrequently hints at things, but this major historical incident seems to have the same gravity as them being split up because their parents moved.
In other words, the inciting incident for the lover’s separation, despite being historically significant, never feels important to the story. Anything separating them would have achieved a similar outcome. Yet, This Time opens with a major historic event clearly meant to set the movie apart from other films. The issue then worsens given a desire to portray the characters as hesitant to recollect those dark days. Consequently, any subtle implications of trauma result in a lot of dramatic potential lost to unspoken wounds. Whatever scars are there may be easily missed by audiences.
This is especially true in the latter half of This Time when the audio starts to lose a touch of quality. Dialogue gets hard to hear while characters ride in a car. Someone speaks too softly in an empty room and the line is lost. There may be an argument these were stylistic choices, yet that doesn’t make them the right ones.
Still, while historical events may fail to fuel backstory, representation remains quite solid. There’s a real sense of Laela and Ken belonging to a pocket of the United States that is invisible because of cultural assimilation. What’s more is they have different feelings about the degree to which they blend into the dominant culture. One is distraught by the creeping subversive influence of colonialism pushing for cultural homogeneity, while the other feels international, cultural pluralism.
These differences of opinion, especially in relation to a shared background, whether ethnic or personal experience, make This Time interesting. Occasionally, topics don’t blossom organically, but their blunt arrival quickly transitions into thought-provoking dialogue. The characters take on new dimensions as well as begin to see one another beyond the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgic romantic recollections.
Though the film isn’t without rough edges, there are no distracting flaws. Those willing to give This Time a chance are likely to find a film that ponders nostalgia as a spark that starts too many flames. Some which warm, and others which burn. Writer-director Sebastien Tobler has composed something genuinely human, and whatever minor imperfections exist, the film shows a lot of potential. It’s easy to picture a quiet date night watching This Time, letting the movie inspire conversation as a couple reacts to the issues, cultural and emotional, discussed by Colin and Laela.
THIS TIME screens this week at the 46th Asian American International Film Festival in New York on Saturday July 29, 2023.