REVIEW: “The Photograph” (2020)

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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.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

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.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

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

4-stars

 

23 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Photograph” (2020)

    • It’s out in theaters right now. Unfortunately not many people are talking about it which is a real shame. I found it captivating and the cast is just terrific. I hope more people will get out and see it.

  1. I don’t comment a lot on reviews, but I do read them and enjoy your material. This was a rare well reviewed film that I was going to skip. Just not my cup of tea…but you’re review seems to fit the same bill as many others so it sounds like it’s worth a shot. I just might give it a try and see what it’s all about!

    • Thanks for the comments. You really should give it a look. I was surprised at just how subdued it was (and I say that as a high compliment). And the performances are top-notch. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. Two great leads and a good script worked well enough for movies like Before Sunset and Once. This one looks good too! It hasn’t made its way to where I am, but I’ll be interested to see it.

  3. I saw this trailer recently and it looks like a lush romance story full of heart. The criss-crossing of past and present relationships echoes The Notebook and many other stories. However, your fine review, and Lakeith Stanfield, means this is definitely one worth checking out.

  4. Stanfield is easily in my top 5 of best actors/actresses going right now. Such an entertaining, versatile talent. Buy him in everything and anything. I want to get to this. May take some time though.

    I’m still amazed that Straight Outta Compton has given birth to some awesome talents all under one movie. O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aldis Hodge, Jason Mitchell (who’s kind of tanked his own career sadly with misdeeds), Stanfield, Corey Hawkins, and Alexandra Shipp.

    • Hope you can see it. I doubt it’ll be in theaters long. Sadly it hasn’t grabbed much of an audience. I’m with on Stanfield. Amazing range and I love seeing him doing so many different things and not being pigeon-holed.

    • I wholeheartedly agree about Stanfield. I’ve been a fan since of his since at least 2012 and haven’t seen him the play the same character more than once.

      And I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right about the breakout stars from Compton. Pretty cool to see where they are today (excluding Mitchell of course). Looking forward to seeing Hodge this week in The Invisible Man!

  5. Pingback: 10+ The Photograph Reviews – A Little Underdeveloped – Movies, Movies, Movies

  6. Pingback: Top That: Five Movies I Probably Shouldn’t Have Paid to See | Thomas J

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