Natalie (Lili Reinhart) has her five-year plan down to a science. First, she’ll move to Los Angeles with her effervescent bestie Cara (Aisha Dee), then she’ll become a hot-shot animator at a big-name studio. Natalie daren’t leave anything in her life up to chance: From her straight-A report card to her impeccable blonde hair, everything is just the way she wants it.
That is, until she sleeps with her best friend, aspiring rock star Gabe (Danny Ramirez). The two promise one another that their one-night soiree won’t be a big deal; alas, a couple weeks later, as Natalie stands on the precipice of graduating from the University of Texas with immaculate grades, she also finds herself bowed over a sorority toilet seat with pregnancy tests gripped in her hand like a sad bouquet.
After Natalie pees on the fated stick, Wanuri Kahiu’s Look Both Ways observes two scenarios unfold. In one, the test is negative. In the other, it’s positive. From that point on, the alternate realities play out side by side—a clever gimmick popularized in Peter Howitt’s 1998 film Sliding Doors (itself similar to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance), which sees a woman living one version of her life after missing a train (that darn sliding door) and another where she catches it. One of the things that makes Sliding Doors so powerful is its emphasis on just how much of life is based around fleeting and seemingly inconsequential moments—sort of like The Butterfly Effect if it was good. But to its detriment, Look Both Ways is concerned with anything but coincidence.
When, in Look Both Ways’ second scenario, Natalie decides to carry the baby to term, her choice feels wildly forced and out of character, to put it lightly. By the time Natalie makes her decision, writer April Prosser has already put considerable effort into hammering home that Natalie and her type-A personality will stop at absolutely nothing to have a successful career. And, yes, I know her choice is necessary for the plot to move forward. But still, couldn’t we have been given just a grain of credibility to cling on to?
Of course, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that someone like Natalie would decide to continue an unplanned pregnancy. But at the very least, the script could have offered us a reason as to why that was the choice she made—or even simply hinted that it took a day or two of deliberation. Instead, they quickly resolve the issue by having her tell Cara, teary-eyed, “I feel like this is something I have to do.” Talk about a cop-out!
It’s likely that Kahiu simply wanted to avoid discussing a hot-button issue like abortion in a Netflix rom-com. Still, it is undeniably bizarre for a 2022 film that sees its career-driven protagonist become pregnant to not even mention abortion in any tangible way. At times, Look feels like Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, but instead of taking place in a world where The Beatles don’t exist, it features one where abortion doesn’t.
In wiping its hands of the abortion issue, Look Both Ways also sidesteps an indisputable truth: Life is harder with a kid. For a vast majority, it’s a life that’s worth it; for many, it’s a life that’s better. But it is harder.
Not for Natalie, though. Her daughter conveniently disappears whenever the film calls for a scene without her in it, and as her respective careers blossom in tandem across realities. They merely take different shapes, neither appearing substantially more complicated or arduous. Perhaps the film intentionally smuggles in sneaky pro-life undertones, or perhaps it merely doesn’t want to ostracize audiences on any end of the having-kids spectrum. Either way, it feels disingenuous.
The storytelling isn’t the only thing that comes across as sanitized. Everything in Look Both Ways looks like it was scrubbed with Lysol—especially Natalie and Cara’s L.A. apartment, which the girls make a point to describe as a shithole (justice for a CGI roach!). In reality, you probably couldn’t rent it for less than $4,000 a month. The sterile sets wouldn’t be so obvious if the LEDs hadn’t been cranked up to their highest setting, blasting every inch of space with blinding spotlights.
Despite this, it should be emphasized that Look Both Ways is still your boilerplate Netflix rom-com—and because of that, it’s a lot of fun to watch. Each storyline is undeniably engrossing, especially the will-they-won’t-they storylines in each reality.
The actors are up for the part, too. Reinhart is magnetic, effortlessly captivating the audience with her big, soulful eyes. She wears every emotion on her sleeve, and for this role—a woman whose every thought and feeling you want to be privy to—that’s a really good thing. Ramirez also does a solid job as the unsuspecting male romantic lead, playing Gabe as quiet and understated, with a subtle undertone of passion and artistry. Playing Natalie’s neurotic father, Luke Wilson does his best with a script that only ever verges on funny—though he is criminally underutilized.
In a way, though, Wilson’s cautious role is a good analogy for Look Both Ways as a whole. The film boasts a unique and compelling premise, one which could have given honest and provocative insight into what it’s like to be an ambitious young mother. How does the birth of a child change one’s life? What if you could look at how things would have played out if you had eschewed one life-altering event? Instead, Look Both Ways feverishly whittles itself down to ensure that it keeps a wide berth from anything unsavory or controversial. The dishonesty that comes along with that timidity is a much tougher pill to swallow than the truths that might have arisen otherwise.
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Writers: April Prosser
Stars: Lili Reinhart, Aisha Dee, Danny Ramirez, David Corenswet, Andrea Savage, Luke Wilson, Nia Long
Release Date: August 17, 2022 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.