“What if?” is a reliably magnetic question. What if you got rejected instead of accepted, took one job over another, cut and run on a lover or stuck it out? The non-Marvel multiverse potential is the evergreen hook of Idina Menzel’s Broadway vehicle If/Then, the NBC series Ordinary Joe, and Netflix’s new film Look Both Ways, in which Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart plays a recent college graduate whose unexpected pregnancy splinters her life into two distinct trajectories. Think a zillennial, streaming-era version of Sliding Doors, the 1998 film in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a Londoner whose life diverges over making/missing a train and, like Look Both Ways, differentiates its timelines with a haircut.
Look Both Ways, directed by Rafiki’s Wanuri Kahiu from a script by April Prosser, also plays out on dual timelines, but sands down the edges – its affect is warm and reassuring, its methods for affirming that everything’s gonna be all right are cozy and tame, especially in regards to young motherhood. Notably, the variable that precipitates the timeline split is not whether Reinhart’s Natalie Bennett decides to keep a surprise pregnancy by her friend turned one-night stand Gabe (Danny Ramirez) on the eve of graduation from the University of Texas in Austin. That choice, which cannot help but invoke the hellscape that is reproductive health in the US during the long dismantling of Roe v Wade, especially in Texas, stems out of one timeline and is quickly glossed over.
Instead, the sliding door in this one-hour-and-50-minute film is whether or not Natalie gets pregnant (both Gabe and Natalie note that they used a condom, AKA did everything right, lest there be anything thorny here). In timeline A, the test is negative and Natalie goes on to Los Angeles with her best friend Cara (Aisha Dee) in pursuit of her dream to be a Hollywood animator. In timeline B, the tests are positive and a stunned Natalie immediately tells Gabe (he says all the right things, including “I’m pro your choice”). She summarily decides that it’s fate – “it just feels like something that I have to do, like this was supposed to happen” – and moves back in with her parents (played by Luke Wilson and Andrea Savage).
There’s an imbalance between the two timelines, which cover five years and smoothly intersect: the LA timeline has the texture of reality, the motherhood plot the haze of fantasy. Childless in LA, Natalie wheedles her way into a job as an assistant to her hero, animation studio boss Lucy (Nia Long), begins dating a hot older co-worker, Jake (David Corenswet, who could be mistaken for Henry Cavill), and struggles to, as Lucy bluntly puts it, “find her voice” in animation. It’s a rose-colored portrait, for sure, but with distinctive familiarity with twentysomething ambition and aimlessness and enough observed details of the assistant class in LA – “roll calls”, post-work joints with friends, trawling Indeed.com – to work on its own.
The motherhood timeline feel comparatively thin; Prosser’s script doesn’t give us much insight into who Natalie was before the pregnancy, other than she’s type A with a detailed five-year plan, or why she would have a baby at 22. It has the weightlessness of speculation, sanitized for a montage. Motherhood Natalie feels left out while scrolling through her childless peers’ lives on Instagram, struggles with her sense of self and making space for the drawing that was once her purpose. But the film resists anything too difficult or practical – there’s no real discussion of finances, and she and Gabe co-parent with will-they-or-won’t-they amicability. A potentially fruitful conflict with Cara – one that would make sense for two once-close friends on very different life tracks – fizzles out into a brief apology.
Still, the film is an easy watch; Kahiu favors warm colors, easy listening and chapter breaks via animated title slides. Seeing two Reinharts seamlessly pass each other by in the same frame offers a mild dopamine hit. (It’s fun to speculate on multiple potential happy selves.) But the film’s ace is Reinhart, who has delivered enough batshit lines on Riverdale with complete commitment to make the script’s broad cliches (“finding my voice”) or clunky exposition (“you have that advertising job lined up, remember?”) work. With her wide, brimming eyes, Reinhart’s face has the physicality of an animated character – a strength underscored when Lucy has Natalie literally act out animated expressions in a job interview. In the CW show and in Hustlers as well as here, there is a disarming sincerity to Reinhart’s performances; she is never less than believable on-screen, even if the story around her falters.
If only Look Both Ways had more substance to give her. I do not wish it to be The Lost Daughter – motherhood need not be a slog – but there’s a way to balance the job and the joy of motherhood while keeping things cheery, in the way HBO Max’s Unpregnant or Hulu’s Plan B made light of the arcane roadblocks to reproductive healthcare in the US. Instead it strikes a different balance: the comfort of seeing how a life can chart different courses and still feel right, and the emptiness of wishful thinking.
Look Both Ways is now available on Netflix