Making a good movie doesn’t have to be difficult (as if I would know). Sometimes all you need are two convincing leads and a good script. Ok, obviously there’s more to it than that, but you get what I mean. A good story told through captivating, relatable performances can often carry a movie to unexpected heights. “The Photograph” is a prime example. Or at least that’s how I felt early into the film.
But I quickly came to see I couldn’t brush off Stella Meghie’s stellar direction. It’s her screenplay and ultimate trust in her leads than really shine. But at the same time, believing in the material and giving your performers space are often signs of a good director. So is patience in letting relationships develop naturally and capturing genuine humanity in a genre not always known for it. Writer-director Meghie shows all of these strengths which separates her film from the soupy fluff normally thrown out on Valentines Day￼.
“The Photograph” tells an intergenerational story that oscillates between two intimately connected timelines. In the present day Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) is an ambitious but unfulfilled writer￼ for an New York based online magazine called The Republic. He arrives in Louisiana to interview Isaac (the ever terrific Rob Morgan) for an oil spill story he’s working on, but is instead captivated by a 30 year-old photo on Isaac’s mantle. ￼It’s of a young woman, Christina Eames who Isaac shared a relationship with before she moved off to New York.
Back home, Michael discovers Christina was a successful photographer who just recently passed away.￼ Feeling there is a story to be told, he reaches out to her estranged daughter Mae (Issa Rae) who is a curator at the Queens Art Museum. The two meet and instantly the proverbial sparks fly but not in the sappy, shallow sense. From their first meeting Meghie creates a truly palpable attraction built upon Rae and Stanfield’s simmering chemistry. I say ‘simmering’ because that’s the temperature Meghie is going for. She’s into giving us real people full of uncertainty and hesitations. So the low-key, slow romantic buildup makes sense.
A second narrative, shown through a series of flashbacks set in the 1980’s, tells Christina and Isaac’s story. Based in Louisiana, these scenes offer an invigorating Deep South contrast to New York City. Chante Adams is sublime as Christina, young and driven yet torn between her desire to pursue a dream and being with the man she deeply loves. Younger Isaac (played by Y’lan Noel) is a third generation crab fisherman who loves Christina with all his heart. He￼ would do anything for her save uprooting from the only place he has ever known.
These older scenes are great companions to the current day stuff. And while both story strands have very different flavors, much of the storytelling technique is the same. We learn the most through simple conversations. Whether Mae and Michael are debating Drake versus Kendrick Lamar or talking about a recent ex who we never lay eyes on. Meghie let’s her characters tell their stories, not through contrived and stilted exposition but from their personal interactions. They determine what is important for us to know. And neither story is dependent upon trauma or betrayal to add depth. It’s all about delicate emotion and the human complexities that make us who we are.
As the dual love stories play out to Robert Glasper’s elegant jazz-influenced score, we can only wonder if the daughter is destined to follow the mother. The looks into Christina’s past with Isaac reveal her strength and grit but also pain and longing. With Mae vivacity comes with a not-so-thinly-veiled vulnerability while the charming Michael isn’t quite as confident as he would have Mae believe. In other words, nothing seems for certain.
Some surprisingly welcomed levity comes from Lil Rel Howery playing Michael’s domesticated brother Kyle. His mix of dialogue and improvisation is funny and (thankfully) more grounded than in some of his other movie appearances. Teyonah Parris is a great match as Kyle’s wife Asia. Both have relatively small roles but are good fits and come across as more than just throwaway comic relief.
There’s a throwback romantic quality in Meghie’s use of the gaze that calls back to Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, MacMurray and Stanwyck. The eye contact is meaningful and the warmth is genuine. It’s also nice to see a movie push back on the hackneyed formulas of a cliche-soaked genre. Sure it sprinkles in a few familiar ingredients (maybe too many), but “The Photograph” maintains its tenderness and sophistication by simply latching onto the one thing all great romances embrace – the human element.
VERDICT – 4 STARS