Press Play (2022)
Rewind and love again.
The power that music has to revive memory is well understood, especially music that was played during formative times during our youth. Director Greg Björkman takes this concept as his central thesis in his charming but generally innocuous romance/sci-fi hybrid movie Press Play.
Laura (Clara Rugaard) is a twenty-something artist living in a coastal paradise (filmed in Hawaii, but I suspect meant to be some US West Coast surfing town). She’s serious about her art and hopes to make a career of it. One day after painting on the beach, her best friend Chloe (Lyrica Okano) takes her to the record store where Chloe’s stepbrother Harrison (Lewis Pullman) works. Chloe has been keen on setting the two up for a while, and her instincts are on point as Laura and Harrison seem to hit it off immediately.
The record store ‘Lost & Found’ is owned by Cooper (Danny Glover) and features a wall of mix tapes that have been found in boxes left by people selling their other physical media to the store. Cassette tapes are antiquated but serve as a reminder of the days when people used to make select playlists for others as a gesture that ranged from the romantic to the curatorial.
Harrison and Laura’s first date is at a gig performed by Japanese Breakfast, a band that initially Harrison dislikes but is brought around to by Laura’s enthusiasm for. Harrison and Laura fall quickly and profoundly in love, mainly shown through a series of vignettes. The romance plays out fairly quickly, and it’s hard to know much about the couple because of that. What we do learn is that Harrison is pre-med and likes surfing and that Laura lost her father when she was young. As far as character development in the first part of the film, that’s about the extent of it. All writers James Bachelor and Björkman are concerned with is selling the fact that this couple loves each other and do not want to be parted. Harrison turns down an opportunity to study medicine on the East Coast to stay with Laura while she completes an art internship locally.
Harrison and Laura make a mix tape that reflects key songs in their relationship, the tape will become something important in the second half of the film, but in the first, it is a cute but janky device that underlines the sweetness of the couple, but also Harrison’s retro sensibilities.
When tragedy strikes and Harrison is killed on his way to a morning surf, the film changes track. Four years go by, and Laura, who has been living a life filled with grief about her doomed romance, is no longer painting. She’s also become careless with herself and insular. She has barely connected with Chloe in that time, and it is only at Chloe’s wedding the audience is given a sense of the huge toll that losing Harrison has taken on everyone, including his father, played by Matt Walsh.
At the wedding, she is reunited with Cooper, who gives her the mix tape she and Harrison made (previously, she placed it on the wall of Lost & Found). Cooper gives some advice to Laura about how memory and music can bring back, even for a moment, those who are lost. Taking the tape home and putting it in her Walkman, Laura finds the tape can do more than that; it can literally transport her into her body to the moment when she and Harrison first heard the song together.
The mechanics of the time-travel narrative are murky at best, and investigating them with an inch of logic does not serve the movie well. Essentially Laura finds she has a chance to warn Harrison of his impending death for the duration of the song. After the song is complete, she returns to the present (but the past Laura is unaware that the future Laura has taken over her consciousness). Eventually, she convinces Harrison that she’s telling the truth, and the two try desperately to avoid the fateful day when Harrison dies.
The universe, however, seems to have other plans. Despite the warnings, Harrison will die another way, and in some instances, his death profoundly impacts upon other people. Each time Laura uses the tape, she returns to a present that has been changed, in many ways for the worse, but she’s unaware of what has happened between the moment she went to the past and how it has impacted the future. Even seeing the damage she’s wrought, she’s only concerned with keeping Harrison alive. The tape won’t rewind, and she only has a limited number of chances to change the past.
Press Play is not a subtle film, although it does have some emotionally resonant moments. It requires the audience to invest in Harrison and Laura and switch off their brains when it comes to the sci-fi/time travel aspect and just go with it. Both propositions can be difficult. Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick (2022), is a genuinely charming leading man, and his likeability goes a long way. Clara Rugaard, I Am Mother (2019), is more difficult to get onboard with. It’s not that her performance is lacking, it’s more that her character needs to hold the film together, and she’s not written well enough to do it.
Thanks to the stunning location, cinematographer Luca Del Puppo, The Last Summer (2019), crafts some breathtaking shots. There are a lot of ‘golden moments’ to relish. Björkman makes the most out of the surfing scenes, and no doubt there will be a contingent of the audience who is there to see Lewis Pullman riding the waves.
Press Play doesn’t reinvent the wheel in either the romance or time travel genres. It barely manages to balance the two. Despite its shortcomings, it remains a breezy film, perhaps because of its slightness. The soundtrack is good, if already a tad dated and sometimes distinctly on the nose (Father John Misty’s cover of ‘Do You Realize??’ could have substituted for much of the script).
While there is nothing that truly elevates Press Play into any manner of memorable cinema, the journey through Laura and Harrison’s unlikely story is diverting and moderately entertaining. One thing it may encourage the audience to do is to make a ‘mix tape’, although to be realistic, it is far more likely that they’ll just hit up their Spotify accounts than attempt to track down a working cassette player. In some ways, the redundancy of the cassette is almost emblematic of the slightly passe nature of Press Play itself; yet it is important to remember that people cherish superannuated things for many reasons — and for Press Play it can explain why some audiences will enjoy the movie despite its flaws.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney