Your Future is Behind You: Reflecting on the Themes of Past Lives

I finally had the chance to see the indie drama Past Lives this past weekend, and living up to the hype it has stayed on my mind since. While big-budget films like Oppenheimer seem poised to sweep up Oscar buzz, Past Lives deserves recognition for its quietly affecting themes.

Your future is behind you is a major motif throughout Past Lives. The film follows Nora and her childhood friend Hae Sung, whom she hasn’t seen in years.  Both Nora and Hae Sung are haunted by their past choices and paths not taken. They find themselves stuck in ruts, wondering “What if…?” as they remember pivotal moments that set them on their current life trajectories. “Your future is behind you” emphasizes how our futures are shaped by our former decisions. As much as we want to progress, we cannot escape our personal histories.

Past Lives has been dubbed an “anti-Mission Impossible” since it focuses not on flashy action scenes but on understated conversations and the characters’ inner worlds. Yet the payoff is just as rewarding. As Nora and Hae Sung revisit their past romance through flashbacks, we feel the full weight of wasted time, words left unspoken, and roads not taken.  As a film lover, it’s exciting to see that the two best-reviewed movies of the year so far, Past Lives and Mission Impossible, couldn’t be more different while still attracting a wide audience because the filmmakers have poured their hearts into both films.

Getting back to Past Lives,  another movie that comes to mind when thinking about reflecting on the past and how it shapes us is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It follows Joel and Clementine, former lovers who each undergo a procedure to erase their memories of their relationship due to the heartbreak of its failure. As Joel’s memories are slowly erased, he re-experiences pivotal moments with Clementine and realizes he doesn’t want to completely forget their time together after all. This fantastical premise allows the film to poignantly explore regret, nostalgia, and our inability to completely sever ourselves from the past’s hold on us. Like Past Lives, Eternal Sunshine remains with the indelible imprint our histories leave, even when we try to wipe the slate clean. Though wildly different in plot, both films share a fixation on the echoes of yesterday that reverberate whether we like it or not.  It’s no accident as Eternal Sunshine is even referenced in Past Lives due to a shared setting.

Though a small indie film, Past Lives packs an emotional punch as it explores universal themes like nostalgia, regret, and the yearning to reconnect with a lost part of oneself. It’s a pensive rumination on the interplay between past, present and future. Rather than offering pat resolutions, the film lingers in the messiness and uncertainty of real life.

Past Lives is not escapist entertainment, but for those seeking meaningful cinema, it delivers. I’m glad I finally watched this gem, and I hope its bittersweet themes get the attention they deserve this awards season.

Have you seen Past Lives? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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