Review by James Lindorf
Mae Morton (Issa Rae) is a successful curator at the Queens Museum. She is also hurt, angry, and full of questions after the recent and unexpected death of her mother, Christina. A letter in her mom’s safety deposit box will send Mae on a journey into her mother’s early life and helps ignite a compelling and unexpected romance. Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) is a rising-star journalist but is growing tired of his current life path. Recently single and considering a career change, Michael never expects a story in Louisiana to and him into the arms of someone who will make him question everything. Universal Pictures will bring Writer-Director Stella Meghie’s (The Weekend) PG-13 romance The Photograph to theaters on Valentine’s day.
Perhaps the most critical element of a romance film is the chemistry between the lead characters. In The Photograph, the chemistry between Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield is palpable and dripping of the screen in every look, smirk, and touch. They may have complicated pasts when it comes to love, but they can’t deny what is happening to them. Even though it doesn’t always make sense, they crave the way the other makes them feel. Unfortunately, instead of letting us revel in their relationship Meghie decides to introduce a second relationship told through flashbacks as Mae reads her mother’s letter.
Christina Eames (Chanté Adams) is the daughter of a single mother, a budding photographer, and in love with Isaac (Y’lan Noel), a fisherman in their small Louisiana town. While the acting in the 1984 segments is well done, the connection between its leads is overshadowed by what Rae ad Stanfield are offering in the main storyline. What could easily be its own movie exists here as Meghie’s version of “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Even though Mae had a problematic relationship with her mother and can quickly point out her shortcomings, she is unable to address the ways they are similar. It was a mistake to make this such a large portion of the film when the message could have been conveyed through the letter and a subsequent conversation between Mae and her father figure played by the great Courtney B. Vance.
While she may have made a mistake with her plotting, Meghie must be commended on her fantastic dialogue. It is fast, funny, and more importantly, it feels natural. The film has two stand out scenes. The first is between Rae, Stanfield, and their sexual tension while sitting in a booth at the back of a busy restaurant. The pair are discussing music; she loves Drake; he’s a Kendrick fan, and they both wonder what’s going on with Kanye. Their banter and body language will leave you wondering if they will be able to make it somewhere more private before ripping each other’s clothes off. The second stand out scene is also the film’s funniest and takes place at the home of Mike’s brother, played by Lil Rel Howery, where the pair go to ride out a brutal storm. Love in all of its forms is evident between the characters, brothers, parents and kids, a new couple, and an established one, thanks to their performances and more strong dialogue.
Robert Glasper infused The Photograph with a fun jazzy sound that fits its stylish young leads, and it is a beautiful looking film thanks to cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard. The Photograph looks good, sounds even better, and feels excellent, unfortunately, Meghie insists on photobombing her most significant work with the romantic film cliché filled flashbacks. The Photograph may not be good enough to go up in Mae’s gallery at this time, but all the artists involved deserved to be watched because greatness is just below the surface.
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