The Present review

The Present, from director Christian Ditter (How to Be Single), tells the story of three children trying to save their parents’ marriage with the help of a magic clock inherited from their grandfather. The clock can turn back time 12 hours so the children keep reliving the same day to try and stop their parents announcing their separation. If that sounds like the sort of charming effects-heavy family film that you loved from the 80s… well, it’s not that, and it isn’t trying to be either.

While the children can control when to turn back time using the handy plot device, this is a time loop film by any other name. And while it’s not fair to compare to one of the greatest comedies of all time, you can’t help but think of Groundhog Day when presented with this form of plot. But even if you can’t better that masterpiece, this genre is a great way to explore characters and play with audience knowledge and expectations as protagonists are placed in a familiar setting over and over and you can see how they’ve grown and learned or otherwise.

This particular take on the genre begins in the middle of the action, with youngest child Taylor (Easton Rocket Sweda), mute and afraid of touch due to some unmentioned form of neurodiversity, already several loops into trying to save his family. It all centres around a dinner where parents Jen (Isla Fisher) and Eric (Greg Kinnear) tell their children that they’re separating. And so Taylor turns back the hands of time so he can try to set up the perfect day and change their ending. But it seems no matter what he does, no matter how close he gets, there’s always something to pull them apart at the end.

Soon, his moody teenage sister Emma (Shay Rudolph) becomes suspicious and gets dragged into the loop and that’s where the film has its strongest moments.  Rudolph is great; she really captures being the oldest and most responsible child without ever getting annoying, and reminds of a young Julia Stiles. It’s clear why she’s already enjoying a good career and you’d expect her to go on to much bigger things. Her high-school-romance subplot is all too brief and it feels like there was more to do with those characters, and her pushy boyfriend really deserved more of an on-screen comeuppance.

By the end of the film as plans get more elaborate, they drag in neglected and quirky middle child Max (Mason Shea Joyce) into the mix and he finds new ways to screw up their plans.

Tonally, the film feels a little inconsistent at times. There is some extremely dark humour with Taylor planning to murder his mother’s douchy potential love-interest Richard, played to perfection by Ryan Guzman, before his sister stops him. He’s one of several characters who represent obstacles to a happy marriage along with an orchid-obsessed couples therapist played by Arturo Castro, and an inappopriate realtor straight from a frat house played by Alphonso McAuley.

There is a little bit too much adult-relationship chat along with relatable therapy scenes for this to be fully entertaining for kids, and the antics for the children aren’t really sophisticated enough to keep adults engaged – one of the big changes to the day is getting the dad a new haircut. So, you could say that it’s a family film; something to please and bore everyone in equal measure.

Like all loops, it must resolve, but the film somewhat loses its way towards the end, almost losing faith in its own idea. The film cuts away from the big moment that supposedly saves the day, and the big message at the end is incredibly trite and feels like it’s from a different era, and not in a good way. Generally, it’s hard to have a satisfying ending when the stakes are so low. Why should we care if these people stay together? Their chemistry is absolutely fine, but you don’t get the sense that anyone’s going to suffer too much in the aftermath.

Unlike many time loop films which mainly follow a single protagonist, this has a bit more of a Rashamon-esque structure, showing the day from the point of view of a different character each time. This is a neat way to explore the dynamics and give everyone a point of view, but by switching the perspective, you do somewhat  lose some of joys of escalation of a time loop. The best sequence is a montage towards the end where the kids go bigger, weirder and more criminal in their efforts to save the marriage. More of this kind of thing throughout could certainly have made the film a little more memorable. Even if the kids had acted more like kids and realised there were no consequences to their actions, it would have been a bit more fun.

Is it cinematic? Well, no. It somewhat lacks spectacle with none of the mythology of the central premise explored. The time travel sequences are just footage moving backwards with a few sparkles from the clock, but it does the job. That’s not to say it feels like a cheap TV movie by any means; perhaps an extended episode of a classy anthology show like Amazing Stories. The cast, led by veteran charisma machines Fisher and Kinnear elevate the material and it’s an enjoyable watch.

Overall, it’s a charming enough way to spend a weekend afternoon. But definitely don’t expect to watch it again and again.

The Present (2024)
Directed by Christian Ditter
Written by Jay Martel
Cinematography by Jon Chema
Edited by Josie Azzam and Kristine McPherson
Music by Fil Eisler
Starring Isla Fisher, Greg Kinnear, Ryan Guzman, Shay Rudolph, Mason Shea Joyce, Easton Rocket Sweda

The Present arrives in UK and Irish cinemas on 24th May 2024.