Living through the bad old days

Amy Muldoon reviews Tomorrow Ever After, a new movie that looks at our culture through the lens of a visitor from a more enlightened future.

Actor and director Ela Thier in her film Tomorrow Ever AfterActor and director Ela Thier in her film Tomorrow Ever After

POPULAR CULTURE is dominated by dystopian parables, but Ela Thier's ambitious and heartfelt sci-fi feature Tomorrow Ever After inverts the paradigm by positing that to people of the future, the present will be seen as the nightmare. The results are by turns laugh-out-loud funny and gut-wrenching, and the film speaks powerfully to the dissatisfaction of millions with our brutalizing, isolating culture.

Hailing from the 26th century, where poverty and oppressions are things of the past, protagonist Shaina (Ela Thier) is thrown back in time to our present. Her insistent "Hi! My name is Shaina!" greetings and hugs broadcast that she comes from somewhere very different, where humans actually enjoy connecting, and expect it in all circumstances.

The first third of the movie light-heartedly follows her fish-out-of-water encounters ("I'm touching plastic, and I'm not in a museum!"), including her delight at being mugged. This part of the movie plays like Elf, if Buddy had been raised by eco-Marxists and not Santa's Helpers.

The failed stick-up attempt gets Shaina entangled with Milton (Nabil Vinas), a down-on-his-luck character who, while openly irritated with Shaina, is intrigued by the power of her Implement.

This device, which when idle looks like an all-white playing card, is Shaina's one connection to her time, and her one hope of returning. It also happens to interface with any technology and knows "what each device is looking for," thereby allowing her to cheerfully give Milton all the "monies" he's desperate to get. This only serves to complicate life with Imani (Ebbe Bassey), the character most resistant to Shaina's charms.

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Tomorrow Ever After, written and directed by Ela Thier, starring Nabil Vinas, Ela Thier, Ebbe Bassey, Memo and Daphna Thier, in limited release starting May 5. Check out the film's website for screenings in your area.

The only character to wholeheartedly embrace Shaina is Milton's friend Antonio (Memo), who is "paranoid, but, like, diagnosed paranoid" and never leaves his house. The tenderness of their interaction as they discuss why people sleep alone is one of many beautiful moments in the movie, which illustrates Thier's belief in humanity's potential to live in very different ways.

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ALTHOUGH SHE has studied this time period extensively, which in future generations is known as The Great Despair, Shaina is unprepared for what she encounters.

"Hugs are taken as a sign of aggression," she records in the Implement, "which is not something I could have known." Things take a darker turn when a woman whom her mentor from 2562 indicates she needs to find (Daphna Thier) calls the cops on her, and she is dragged into a mental hospital.

While some of the plot turns will come as no surprise, the depiction of people making bad choices for good reasons resonates powerfully in a climate of growing inequality.

Thier explicitly made Tomorrow Ever After to tap into the appetite people have for deep political change. "My goal as an artist is to do my part in transitioning society from one that is governed by greed to one that is built around human needs," she says. "In today's political climate, millions of us around the world hunger to see this vision expressed."

Despite the growing move to have more inclusive casts, even in the biggest blockbuster franchises, Tomorrow Ever After stands out for its multi-racial ensemble immigrant cast and crew.

"I set out to showcase our humanity and talents," Thier says, "which transcend the racist and sexist stereotypes that confine us in the industry." Ebee Bassey's portrayal of Imani in particular avoids the pitfalls of a stereotypical hard-headed Black woman, and shows instead someone who wants to hope for something better, but knows how unlikely that is.

While Tomorrow Ever After is a small budget movie, it's a big movie in every way that matters: big ideas, big emotions and a generous helping of hope. Beautifully shot, and with a melancholy score by Rob Schwimmer, it is a unique movie-going experience, not to be missed.