In the opening scene of Look Both Ways, college senior Natalie (Lili Reinhart) lays out her ambitious five-year plan to her friend Gabe (Danny Ramirez) during a library study session, reminding him that “those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Gabe counters that while plans are well and good, all we really have is the present moment. They decide to celebrate the present moment with a one-night stand, promising to not make it “a big deal.” Of course, it soon becomes an enormous deal when Natalie discovers that she is pregnant on the night before graduation – or when Natalie discovers that she isn’t.
The Lives of Natalie With and Without a Child
At the moment of her pregnancy test, the film splits into dual timelines, one in which Natalie moves to LA as intended and one in which she returns home to Austin to have her baby. It’s a charming and occasionally poignant trope that nevertheless fails to make the point the writer clearly intended, though it almost succeeds in something far more profound.
Flash forward to the final scene of the movie (warning: spoilers), when the timelines converge at the same place at which they severed: the sorority bathroom where Natalie took her pregnancy test. Both versions of herself stand in the mirror, take a deep breath, and say, “You’re okay.” The conclusion is that no matter which direction life takes, women can turn out okay.
In both timelines, Natalie ends up presenting her work at South By Southwest, well on her way to a successful career as a cartoonist. Because it’s a rom-com, she also ends up getting her man. Thus, we are to conclude that the pregnancy and the decision to have the baby weren’t the future-ending events they seemed to be at the time. Women really can have it all.
The problem with that conclusion is that Natalie’s life as a mother has been both much harder and much more fulfilling than her life working as an assistant in an LA animation studio.
Both Natalies Have Dreams, but Only One Experiences Growth
While both timelines follow the typical rom-com structure (girl finds boy, loses boy, gets boy back), the Austin-motherhood timeline uses character-driven actions to achieve that structure.
Natalie-as-mom pulls back from a potential romance with Gabe not because she doesn’t have sincere feelings for him, but because she understands the risk that complicating their relationship will have for their daughter. “I love you, but our daughter comes first and I’m afraid of putting our delicate family structure at risk” is a much more compelling plot hurdle than “I love you, but you randomly got a job in Nova Scotia and there’s a bad internet connection.” When compared to Austin Natalie’s journey, LA Natalie’s story feels arbitrary and capricious.
The dual love stories are similarly imbalanced.
The script does a lot of work trying to convince us that LA Natalie’s coworker Jake (David Corenswet) is the perfect guy for her. They both make five-year plans! They both work in film! They both like to quote Ben Franklin! These surface-level similarities fail to compensate for the fact that Jake and Natalie never prioritize each other. He agrees to a year-long job in Nova Scotia without discussing it with his long-term girlfriend. She dumps him the moment distance gets hard. In an allegedly grand romantic gesture, he risks the ire of his bosses to show up for her film screening for one weekend. He’s still going back to Nova Scotia, though, and she seems primed to go back to work for the same boss who recently fired her. Work comes first, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change for either of them.
Austin Natalie’s love interest is Gabe, the father of her child. In true rom-com fashion, it’s clear that Gabe is in love with her from the beginning, despite agreeing to be “just friends.” The two co-parents spend a lot of time discussing how different they are, but the only apparent difference is that she likes to make five-year plans and he doesn’t. Unlike Jake, Gabe understands that love comes with both risk and responsibility. He puts his own dreams aside to support Natalie and their daughter. He gracefully accepts Natalie’s decision not to date him, even as he makes the case that their love is worth the risk. While Natalie and Gabe both mourn the lives they could have had if they hadn’t become parents, they cherish the life they built.
Meanwhile, LA Natalie flounders as she tries to grow professionally without experiencing any significant personal growth. Eventually, her boss and idol Lucy Galloway (Nia Long) correctly identifies that Natalie has failed to articulate an individualized voice as an animator, but then callously refuses to mentor her and arbitrarily fires her. LA Natalie then returns to her parents’ house and somehow finds her voice. Unfortunately, we’re still not sure what that voice is because she hasn’t really learned anything about what it means to be human. Austin Natalie doesn’t have that problem. She has plenty of voice. What she needs is a little sleep and some space to draw.
While both versions of the character end up at SXSW, LA Natalie’s short film is left vague. (It’s something about a bird getting a tattoo.) Meanwhile, Austin Natalie creates a comic based on an experience we witness in the movie: being up late with an infant who refuses to sleep. Night Owl is successful because it reimagines a challenging personal experience and then universalizes it.
While both Natalies have dreams, only Natalie-as-mother experiences growth, responsibility, and the grief that comes with change. Only Natalie-as-mother learns to love something more than her own artistic ambitions and, ironically, only Natalie-as-mother is able to channel that love into art.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think the filmmakers believed that motherhood is the path to fulfillment.
Look Both Ways Accidentally Highlighted the Problem with Girl Boss Feminism
I can understand why some writers have accused this movie of being accidental pro-life propaganda. I wouldn’t go that far, though. it’s clear that the characters are pro-choice and that Natalie chooses to have the baby because that is her preference. I don’t think wallowing in this decision would benefit the movie.
The problem is that LA Natalie is never presented with another heart-wrenching decision. While getting fired does temporarily derail her five-year plan, she’s never asked to take responsibility for anyone or anything outside herself. The writer is so committed to an individualistic, girl boss version of feminism that she didn’t know what to do with Natalie’s character without the crisis of unexpected pregnancy. She couldn’t conceive of another way to force Natalie to grow up. Instead, we get silly scenes about goats being brought into work and lots of complaining about LA housing prices. It didn’t have to be that way.
There is no reason why Natalie’s LA timeline couldn’t have been stronger. Having a baby isn’t the only transformative experience a woman (or a man, let’s not forget Gabe) can go through. There are infinitely more interesting options aside from a cookie-cutter breakup and getting fired.
The fundamental issue, though, is that the writer doesn't seem to understand what to make of her own story. Life isn’t about achieving your ambitions. Life is about learning to love. Prosser set out to write a movie about how setbacks can be overcome in pursuit of your personal dreams, and instead wrote a movie about how ambition is empty without love. This may not be a popular view in a culture centered around self-actualization, but what we want to be true and what we know to be true are not always the same. Ultimately, we all need to step outside ourselves in order to self-actualize. We never get to see LA Natalie achieve this, and the movie suffers greatly for it.
I realize I may be asking a lot of a movie that is essentially a sweet and silly rom-com. But the writer clearly intended the movie to have a feminist message, so it’s justified to evaluate both what the message is and whether it was achieved. Ultimately, the movie falls short because the filmmakers insist on pursuing a misguided moral that isn’t borne out in the storyline. It’s a shame, because this movie could have been something really special.