On paper, writer/director Jacob Estes‘ Relive would be a fairly interesting time travel thriller, but it’s made into something more by the really wonderful relationship between its two leads. David Oyelowo plays Jack, an LAPD detective who acts as a surrogate father to his niece Ashley (A Wrinkle In Time‘s Storm Reid). Ashley’s parents – particularly Jack’s brother Garrett (Brian Tyree Henry) – aren’t always around, and Ashley and Jack have a special relationship because of that. So it’s especially devastating when Jack gets a terrified call from Ashley, and arrives at her house to find her and her parents dead in what seems to be a shocking murder-suicide.
That seems like a giant spoiler, I know, but Relive‘s just getting started. A few days later, Jack receives a call from his niece’s phone, and once he gets past the shock of it, he realizes that Ashley is calling from two weeks in the past. Present-day Jack keeps up communication with Past-Ashley, hoping to both solve the mystery of her death and prevent the tragedy before it occurs.
Relive doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to convince Jack – or us – of the rules of this universe, and while, on the one hand, that means those rules are sort of poorly defined, it’s also pretty refreshing to watch a supernatural movie that doesn’t spend a quarter of its screentime with the hero going, “How could this be possible? I must be going mad!” Just roll with it, Relive seems to be saying, and so we roll with it. The mystery of what happened to Ashley and her parents would make for a compelling conspiracy thriller even if there weren’t a supernatural element involved, and the time traveling ghost angle adds a lot of intrigue.
Unfortunately, however, Relive suffers a bit from flat direction and a sleepy edit. It’s the sort of plot – detective solving a terribly personal case with help from beyond the grave – that could, or should, chug ahead at a breathless pace, and instead Relive drags at times. It loses some momentum by the big climax, and the film lacks visual interest, feeling sort of beige and tepid on screen.
But not much of that matters once Oyelowo and Reid are together, doing their thing – and it’s interesting that I use the word “together” here, because they spend much of the movie shot separately, only connected by their phone calls. But it never feels that way – they’re both so good in their roles that we believe in them as “together” even when they’re not. Before any drama arises, Relive wisely gives us a lot of reason to care about their relationship, showing us Jack picking up Ashley when her dad forgets, taking her to a diner where they’ve obviously spent a lot of time, showing us little rituals they share, investing us wholly in this dynamic. So when that relationship is at stake, we genuinely care. We want so badly for these two to be okay, for this special bond to be protected at all costs. Once Relive‘s got us in the bag for Jack and Ashley, everything else falls into place.
Bolstered by great supporting performances from Alfred Molina and Mykelti Williamson, Relive is a high-concept thriller that wisely places its characters above its concept, and it works all the better for it.