Thursday, April 23, 2020


The first pleasant surprise of The Photograph is to find it a major Hollywood studio’s attempt to give us a romantic drama about believable people in real situations. How infrequently these days are we confronted with movies at this level of gloss and polish that purport to be about recognizable human emotion. The second pleasant surprise is that it works all the old genre tropes and trappings while allowing its characters space to breathe. Here’s a movie about grownups falling in love, a process that’s halting and takes its own shape, allowing the contours of their interests and careers to take them on a circuitous path back to each other. Is there a happy ending? Surprisingly, whether it’s destined for weepy, triumphant, or somewhere bittersweet between remains uncertain right up until the final moments before the credits roll. What a likable spot to find yourself, in a wide release movie where the lives of the characters dictate the development of the plot instead of the other way around. In the leads are two fine young talents who brew up good chemistry together. Issa Rae plays a precise professional in mourning; her photographer mother has recently passed away, leaving the young woman to curate a retrospective. Lakeith Stanfield is the aspiring journalist who finds his way to the story and hopes to woo her into an interview. One electric look between the two of them, and it’s clear there more wooing to do. And yet because they each have their professional concerns, the attraction and the dating has to find its way shyly into tender spaces and stolen moments. They’re full lives looking to make room for one more.

Writer-director Stella Meghie gives the movie a gentle sensuousness. It is tactile — a box of negatives, a dusty record, a simple radiant yellow dress, a dappling of raindrops, a wineglass coyly sipped — and smooth, layering in a languorous jazzy score as the frames are drinking in a soft smile, a lingering glance, a gentle brush. Is this coupling meant to be, or meant to be fleeting? Their story is set against flashbacks of the photographer mother’s own early struggles with love. As a young woman (Chanté Adams) she too tried balancing the needs of the flesh and the needs of the artist, the desire to be with by her small town lover (Y’lan Noel) and the impulse to move to a big city and create. Placing the generations side by side, Meghie’s screenplay, recalling the best of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s heartfelt relationship dramas,  develops its themes patiently, in well-drawn comparisons and contrasts. The movie is warm and melancholic, allowing its characters to be people — warmly funny, guarded and cautious, flirtatious and alive — with thoughts and ambitions that may not fit the cliched movie romance moments. But isn’t it pretty they might think so?

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