What would you do if you had the ability to time travel? Would you try to prevent a world tragedy, or use your knowledge of the future to game the system and get rich? For a lot of people, the idea that immediately comes to mind is incredibly personal — fixing a mistake that ruined a relationship.
For young people especially, romantic relationships feel like the most world-shaking events. You’d be willing to do anything to stay with the one you love, and the heartbreak comes from being helpless to change the past. This 2018 movie uses time travel to turn that moment of regret into an ending you’d never expect.
Time Freak starts with the end of the main couple’s relationship. Physics prodigy Stillman (Asa Butterfield) gets the dreaded “we need to talk” text from his free spirit girlfriend, Debbie (Sophie Turner.) When she inevitably breaks his heart, he goes to the most extreme measures in order to save the relationship: he invents a time machine.
Stillman tries to change his reaction to the breakup, gaming the system to find the magic words to convince Debbie to stay with him, but it doesn’t work. So Stillman does the most logical thing: He grabs his best friend Evan (Skyler Gisondo, the secret weapon of everything he’s in) and travels back to the beginning of their courtship, determined to make it work this time.
Armed with the “we need to talk” text as a reverse-Back-to-the-Future-photo device, Stillman changes his behavior throughout the past, waiting for the future Debbie to change her mind about the breakup. He tries to be more spontaneous, he plays nice with her friends, and eventually, he makes it work.
That should be the end of the story — the boy has the girl back, he learned a lesson about not taking things so seriously, and the manic pixie dream girl “fixes” his nerdy demeanor. But Time Freak doesn’t stop there. After the relationship is saved, there’s still another half hour.
We smash cut to two years later, where Stillman and Debbie are now happily married but behind this, there’s a grim secret. Stillman has been using the time machine to fix every little thing in his life, from making the bed to avoiding an argument. This leaves Debbie in a marriage that feels effortless, but also soulless.
The lesson of Time Freak isn’t “you need to change how you act to make a relationship work” or even “trying to change yourself for a relationship doesn’t work.” The real moral is “relationships are messy.” People clash, argue, and fight. Traits you love about someone can go on to become pet peeves, and that’s okay.
Love isn’t making someone perfect or making yourself perfect for someone else. It’s about working through the imperfections together and acknowledging that doesn’t make the relationship fail. In fact, that just makes it stronger. Time Freak subverts the rom-com model to paint what real relationships look like — on the background of some truly novel time-travel storytelling.
Time Freak is now streaming on HBO Max.