Movies often tell us that to succeed we should just be ourselves. It’s ironic that a medium that thrives on artifice so often pushes a message of personal fidelity, but Hollywood mythologises the authenticity of the geek, the outcast, the ugly ducking. There are however different measures of success and James Vs. His Future Self sees a young man having to go against his own nature, and professional brilliance, so as not to sacrifice his future happiness. This quirky comedy-drama is high on heart and sincerity, and its sheer good nature overcomes occasional tonal muddiness.

James (Jonas Chernick) is a physicist obsessed with time travel, to the exclusion of practically everything else in his life. When the dishevelled, foul-mouthed Jimmy (Daniel Stern) bursts onto the scene and tells him he is James’ future self, James is initially delighted. It means his life’s work will be successful. Jimmy reveals that he’s actually come back to prevent him from achieving his breakthrough as it will leave him bitter and isolated. Jimmy tries to teach the uptight James to live in the moment and to tell his best friend and fellow physics whizz (Cleopatra Coleman) the depths of his feelings for her.

LaLonde’s film, co-written with Chernick, tries to balance a number of elements; comedy, drama, and sci-fi. For the most part, it works well, particularly when it uses the scientific element as a postmodern method of looking at identity and relationships, in a similar way to films such as Ruby Sparks, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Stern, so great when he’s let off the leash, dominates when he’s onscreen, which works well as he slowly batters the meeker James into submission. Chernick’s nervier, twitchier presence brings to mind a younger Paul Reiser; a slightly officious type whose clueless single-mindedness is often the kind with which the road to hell is paved in disaster movies.

The writers’ interest in the mechanics and attendant paradoxes of time travel are only as deep as they need to be to service the story, which is a sweet-natured rom-com at its core and it never gets overly bogged down in the science. This is not Primer by any stretch, although the fact that Jimmy will effectively cease to exist should he accomplish his mission is a potent one. The concept of time travel here stands as a metaphor for regret, missed chances and the desire to rectify past mistakes. It also allows for some choice crude comedy such as Jimmy’s intimate method of proving his identity. Their frequent loggerhead interludes also often hit on James’ sexual eccentricities. “You jerk off like you’re driving a Prius!” Jimmy jeers at one point. The wiser, older man also sparks nicely with the delightful Coleman, who enjoys the company of this odd but attentive stranger after years of ascetic science talk with James.

James Vs. His Future Self may hit all the expected moments of a romantic comedy, to the extent that the time travel trappings are simply a glossy coating on an otherwise standard narrative, but it’s a frequently witty and spirited work that benefits immeasurably from that dynamite turn from Stern. Bonus points too for Coleman’s scientist not being expected to choose between love and a career, and watch out for a terrific extended cameo from the great Frances Conroy as James’ mentor, who crafts a memorable character from what could have been a stock eccentric.

As part of Glasgow Film Festival 2020