It’s difficult these days to think that there used to be a time, very recently in fact, when it felt like Netflix was going to save the kind of midbudget rom-coms that Hollywood’s current, franchise-obsessed era has otherwise erased. But once upon a time (i.e., 2018 and 2019), films like Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Always Be My Maybe had seemingly everyone convinced that Netflix was going to deliver the long-awaited wave of new rom-com classics that the entertainment industry’s other major studios were choosing not to produce.
However, the past few years have poked an increasingly discouraging number of holes in that theory. Now, it seems more like Netflix’s midbudget rom-coms are not, in fact, the streaming service’s answers to When Harry Met Sally or Notting Hill, but to the kind of formulaic TV movies that the Hallmark and Lifetime channels continue to churn out. Nowadays, the only thing that Netflix’s original rom-coms seem to have a leg up on movies like A Gingerbread Romance or Battle of the Bulbs is their ability to attract talent that would usually be too good for such overly saccharine, easy material.
The disappointing quality of Look Both Ways, the streaming service’s new Wanuri Kahiu-directed romantic dramedy, doesn’t do anything to dispute that criticism, either. Despite boasting a promising cast and premise, the new film does as little as possible with its strongest elements and becomes something that, unfortunately, fits in perfectly well with many of Netflix’s other originals.
Look Both Ways follows Natalie (Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart), an ambitious college student who engages in a one-night stand with Gabe (Top Gun: Maverick‘s Danny Ramirez), a drummer and longtime friend, near the end of her senior year. Later, Natalie finds herself taking a pregnancy test after getting sick and throwing up in her bathroom on graduation night. As she waits to find out the test’s result, however, Natalie’s life suddenly splits in two, spawning one version of her life where she got pregnant from her hookup with Gabe and one where she didn’t.
In the former, Natalie moves back to Texas to live with her parents before she gives birth to her and Gabe’s daughter. Meanwhile, in the latter, she is able to stick to her original post-college plan and move to Los Angeles with her best friend, Cara (Aisha Dee), in order to pursue a career as a Hollywood animator. Over the course of its 110-minute runtime, Look Both Ways follows Natalie’s parallel paths, exploring the ways in which her life may or may not turn out differently depending on the result of her pregnancy test.
The film predictably struggles to balance its two storylines, but the biggest problem with Look Both Ways is how it constantly sanitizes Natalie’s alternate lives. In one version, Natalie not only finds her way into Hollywood’s animation ranks with illogical ease, but she also ends up immediately working alongside Jake (David Corenswet), a fellow animator and potential suitor, as well as her idol, Lucy (Nia Long). In her other life, Natalie’s struggle to let go of her post-college dream is relegated to only a handful of scenes, none of which fully grapple with the weight of her loss or her newfound parental responsibilities.
For her part, Reinhart does a commendable job in Look Both Ways. She brings a warmth and earnestness to the film that it desperately needs, and her work throughout it makes a compelling case for her to be cast as the lead in a rom-com that’s got a bit more heart, wit, and energy. Unfortunately, despite Reinhart’s likable work as its lead, the film also invests far too much time into Natalie’s one-note relationships with Jake and Gabe, which prevents it from digging too deeply into its lead character’s important emotional and mental journeys.
Ramirez’s performance as Gabe ultimately comes across as too muted, and while Corenswet’s chemistry with Reinhart helps Jake stand out slightly more, neither character feels like a compelling love interest for Reinhart’s Natalie. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that Natalie’s relationships with Jake and Gabe are littered with clichéd rom-com plot beats, which rob Look Both Ways of any sense of spontaneity or originality.
Instead, the film becomes a shockingly sluggish affair near the end of its first act, which is when April Prosser’s script begins to focus more on Natalie’s two romances than her own personal journeys. The film’s intense focus on Natalie’s interactions with Jake and Gabe also reduces how much time she gets to spend with Look Both Ways’ legitimately charismatic supporting characters, which include Dee’s Cara as well as Natalie’s eccentric parents, who are played with equal amounts of joyful glee and slightly heightened energy by Luke Wilson and Andrea Savage.
The film’s insistence on sticking to every tired plot beat in the rom-com playbook is only made worse by its reluctance to throw any legitimate challenges Natalie’s way. As both a young mom and an ambitious wannabe filmmaker, Natalie faces very few of the kinds of challenges that one would expect her to have to deal with. Instead, Look Both Ways allows Natalie to walk through two versions of her life that not only end up being only slightly different from each other, but also feel frustratingly cushioned and safe from beginning to end.
The closest that Look Both Ways ever comes to becoming a truthful examination of its lead character’s life is when Long’s Lucy sits Reinhart’s Natalie down for a difficult discussion. Throughout the scene, Lucy tells Natalie that she isn’t ready to become a filmmaker because she hasn’t found her own artistic voice yet, and she advises her to quit her assistant job in order to find the space necessary to do so. The scene is well-performed by both Long and Reinhart, but it also feels like the fairy tale version of what Lucy and Natalie’s conversation would actually be.
In other words, the scene suffers from the same problem that all of Look Both Ways does: It’s nothing more than a safer, less daring version of something that audiences have already seen a hundred times before.
Look Both Ways premieres Wednesday, August 17 on Netflix.