There are a handful of moments in “Southside with You” where I saw glimpses of a different movie – a better movie hidden just under the surface. They are brief moments where we get small tastes of character depth, moments where the actors feel more natural and less scripted, moments where the film hints at developing its own unique identity. Unfortunately these are only ‘moments’ and they tease us with what this film could have been.
First time director Richard Tanne’s starry-eyed treatment of President Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date is a strange bit of bio-fiction but full of meaty potential. Tanne, who also wrote the screenplay, uses the familiar true framework of their first date and fills it in with inventions of his own. The problem is a big chunk of his fiction does more to hurt the film than to help.
The movie begins on a warm summer Chicago day in 1989. Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) is a Princeton grad and now lawyer at Chicago’s Sidley Austin law firm. She is assigned to mentor a Harvard man and summer associate named, you guessed it, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). Michelle is portrayed as ambitious and focused. Barack is more laid back and charismatic. Michelle is adamant about keeping their relationship professional but agrees to go out on a ‘not-a-date’ outing with the future leader of the free world.
Barack picks Michelle up in his beat-up yellow Datsun and the two spend the day in Chicago. They hit a museum for an art exhibit. They take a stroll and have lunch in a park. They attend a community event where Barack served as organizer before heading to Harvard. They hit a bar, watch a movie, and end it with ice cream and a kiss. I mention all of that because it doesn’t really spoil anything. Tanne wants this to be about what they say instead of where they go. He tries to emphasize the conversations and pulls heavily from Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. Perhaps a bit too much.
The walk-and-talk formula works so well for Linklater because the conversations feel incredibly organic. Several things factor into that. First he has more seasoned actors. But the big difference is Hawke and Delpy contribute to those scripts. Their input helps make those exchanges their own. Many of Tanne’s conversations feels heavily scripted. Despite the best efforts of Sumpter and Sawyers, their dialogue is often dry and stilted. The actors are better than the material and there are moments where you see them rising above it and falling more comfortably into their characters. Sadly, the film doesn’t allow them to do it consistently.
Back to Tanne’s inventions, one instance where it works is in the fictitious bar scene. Tanne slows things down and loosens his grip on his actors. It allows for the most open and authentic scene in the entire film. I loved it. But then we get moments such as the community event which probably happened some time later in their relationship but here is used as a pretty significant and obvious plot device. There is also an encounter outside of the movie theater that actually happened but Tanne significantly alters. The result is a noticeably clumsy and contrived scene that simply doesn’t work.
Sadly too many things don’t work. Perhaps I’m looking at it all wrong. Maybe it should only be viewed as a lightweight romantic date movie, but I’m not convinced it works through that lens either. I tried to imagine if the story or romance would hold an ounce of interest if the two involved weren’t the future president and first lady of the United States. Without their connection the answer was a resounding “No”. And even with their connection the movie doesn’t fare much better.
VERDICT – 2 STARS