God’s Time (2022)
The best parts of New York City are free. This is true of Central Park and the Staten Island Ferry, but it applies even more to filmmaking, where iconic landmarks and streetscapes you can’t possibly buy offer themselves up in quick, stolen shots. It can be nearly impossible to secure a production permit that will turn a block of lower Manhattan into a closed set; far easier to simply show up and get as many takes as possible until the cops come. Perhaps that’s why, as a rule, New York indies tend to be frenetic and boisterous, with turns toward violence and humor always close at hand. They reflect the slapdash nature of their own production, which in turn reflects the verisimilitude of life at street level. In the best examples of the form, improvisation and slapstick allow characters to react to their local environments in real time, capturing a chaos that cannot be easily rehearsed. There is a sense of the camera stealing moments that were never intended for it, of having wandered into real-life situations teetering on the brink of control. It can feel risky, as a director, to put a well-thought-out scenario at the mercy of New York streets—among other things, there’s always the danger that your fictional characters won’t get along with the real ones that abound downtown—but, as indies like Daniel Antebi’s God’s Time (2022) go to show, the loss of control also breeds high rewards, capturing spectacles inherent to the city itself.
The most memorable scene of God’s Time happens near the start, when the film’s hero, Dev (Ben Groh), bombs down a SoHo street on his bike, grooving to a gospel song in his headphones. The date and time are presented in neon purple overlay: it’s 8:15 a.m. on a summer’s day in 2020. It’s telling how simple this moment was to shoot. The main points of interest here are Dev’s outfit, Groh’s ability to ride a bike with no hands, and the scale of New York City behind him—which does a splendid job throughout God’s Time of playing itself. What more does one need beyond Dev’s easy balance to tell us about the way he inhabits this place? Budgetarily spare and narratively abundant, Antebi’s film is a reminder that, while it might be easier to make movies (or live) in this city with unlimited cash, it’s often more fun working out of a sense of resourceful constraint—aiming high and seeing what you can get away with.
As a title, God’s Time sounds a lot like the Safdie brothers’ Good Time (2017), another great example of antic and grit. I suspect the resemblance is deliberate, as Antebi’s project also mounts a frantic mission from Lower Manhattan into the outer boroughs, with pit stops at a hospital and an unsuspecting mother’s home. But this time, instead of being led around by a baleful Robert Pattinson, we have Dev, who, alongside his best buddy Luca (Dion Costelloe), first attends an Addict’s Anonymous meeting on East Broadway, where their mutual crush Regina (Liz Caribel Sierra) announces plans to kill her ex-boyfriend, Russel (Jared Abrahamson). Dev, convinced that she has a gun and is capable of murder, sets off to save and possibly woo the wounded woman. He and Luca cover remarkable ground in search of her, from an Upper West Side apartment to a Bushwick church, before a fateful showdown outside a hospital in Queens.
God’s Time was one of the first films shot in New York following the onset of the pandemic. It was filmed in late 2020, after the city became the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis and went through the violent catharses of the summer that followed. When, in a memorable scene, Dev takes a can of pepper spray to the face (by a woman who mistakes him for her husband’s secret lover), and later speaks casually about having endured mace before while Luca washes his eyes out with milk, the film pays its clearest homage to the anarchic tone of that year. Overall, it presents a reliable time-capsule of what 2020 looked and felt like in downtown Manhattan, where face masks were ubiquitous but did not stifle trash talk.
In addition to being an artifact of the pandemic, God’s Time is also a product of the opioid crisis, and it draws remarkable parallels to the lived experiences of the two. While surely unintentional in its conception—Antebi first wrote the script before COVID struck—the film is extremely deliberate in its portrayal of recovering addicts as upbeat and embattled, making their way through the world with precautions against the threat of relapse or despair. Some of their methods—invoking higher powers, compulsively attending meetings, or making up stories during their share sessions for fun—have the ritualistic effect of an improperly worn face mask, (which is practically the only kind we see in God’s Time), there more for symbolic purposes than meaningful prophylaxis. Of course, addiction is not a particle in the air; whatever you feel you need to do to stay clean is what keeps you that way. But while the pandemic was still a little too omnipotent in late 2020 to operate purely as metaphor in the film, it’s possible to sense that effect in it now, as an additional visual cue to the recovery mindset. After all, New York City itself had recently experienced rock bottom, and the sense of vibrancy and abandon with which people ventured into the streets at that time closely resembled the exuberance of someone who had just been given a second chance at life.
Though Dev at one point mentions having watched Luca wean off Suboxone, there’s an emphasis throughout the film of addiction coming in forms other than pills. From the start, it appears that Dev’s addiction to replace addiction is recovery itself. In an early scene, after getting chastised by Luca for being late, Dev pulls the camera aside and confides: “You know, back in the day I actually used to get fucked up all the time, and back then I was actually late to everything. I was actually a bad guy who did actual bad things.” This time, his tardiness is due to helping out a drugged-up passerby with a friendly cigarette. We later learn that Dev donates his clean urine to parolees. As God’s Time wends on, we watch as his penchant for heroism gets him deeper into trouble, since Regina, it becomes clear, is not a girl in need of saving.
In addition to its kinetic cinematography, God’s Time treats the fourth wall as oddly permeable. It’s one thing for Dev to be constantly pulling the camera aside (a decision, Antebi has stated, based directly on Groh’s compulsive improvisation)—he’s our film’s narrator. But as he and Luca catch up to Regina, and start to uncover the half-truths of her private life, she increasingly begins to take the screen hostage, making subtle eye contact with the camera as she spins out further deception. It’s as though her persona is edging out Dev’s. Though she ultimately remains opaque and mysterious, by the end of the film we feel that Regina stays this way through the force of her own power, and in resistance to Dev and Luca’s desire to know her.
This permeability between truth and fantasy is what drives God’s Time beyond idle fun. In its exploration of recovery, the film is less focused on capturing some kind of epistemological truth than in probing and embellishing the stories we tell ourselves. This open-ended approach also gives it one of the most powerful evocations of New York City in recent cinema, since the city is always suspended somewhere between the concrete fact of itself and the romantic ideas we impart onto it. It’s a big place, and if it seems ample enough to accommodate one’s wildest dreams, that only makes it easier to get lost inside of them. As Dev and Luca chase Regina through the city, we watch the narrative transcend from the need for a plot to distract from relapse and rote lessons about savior complexes into something more subtle—delusion as a form of intimacy, and suspension of disbelief as a survival tactic in the battle against despair.