There is a beautiful nostalgic allure to the new romantic drama “Sylvie’s Love” that begins in the first frame and carries through the entire running time. It’s seen in the luscious cinematography, the detailed sets, the dialogue, the performances, the costumes, the music. Everything about “Sylvie’s Love” screams classic Hollywood romance. There’s one significant difference. The film features a predominately black cast and tells a love story of two black characters set during a time when representation was practically nonexistent.
The film is written, directed, and co-produced by Eugene Ashe who gives us a kind of movie that we simply don’t see these days. After an exquisite opening set in 1962 New York City the movie slides back to the summer of 1957. Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) works with her father Mr. Jay (played by the ever soothing Lance Reddick) running the family’s record shop. But she dreams of one day being a television producer. “Can you imagine,” her loving but cynical father remarks. “A colored girl making TV shows.”
One afternoon a young jazz saxophonist named Robert (former NFL star-turned actor Nnamdi Asomugha) walks into the record store to answer the ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window. It doesn’t take long to notice the spark between Sylvie and Robert and soon casual flirting turns to romance. The stars seem to be aligning for the young couple in love. Then Robert and his quartet get the offer of a lifetime to play a series of jazz clubs in Paris. He asks Sylvie to go with him but she declines for some very personal reasons. And just like that their summer of love comes to an unexpected end.
Jump ahead five years and we’re back at the scene that opens the film. Sylvie is now married to a successful but very ‘me-first’ businessman named Lacy (Alano Miller). She also has her dream job working as an assistant to the barrier-breaking producer (Ryan Michelle Bathe) of a popular television cooking show. But then that storybook chance meeting happens as a Sylvie, radiating in an elegant turquoise Chanel gown, stands outside of a concert hall. Robert, back in New York to record an album, walks by and Sylvie instantly recognizes him. In a snap the smoldering chemistry is back as if they had never been apart. But as we are quickly reminded, a lot has changed in five years.
There are many components that make this old-fashioned romance such a delight. It starts with its two stars. Thompson is wonderful in capturing Sylvie’s evolution from naive and vulnerable to strong and self-assertive. Asomugha exudes a quiet dignity and has a classic leading man charisma that makes his performance stand-out. There’s also a great supporting cast around them including Reddick and Bathe. But also Aja Naomi King as Sylvie’s best friend Mona. She goes from saucy comic relief to an activist offering subtle references to the world outside of the story’s romantic bubble.
The film’s gorgeous, nostalgia-rich aesthetic is just as vital. Declan Quinn’s cinematography is some of the year’s best, offering up one frame-worthy shot after another. The visuals are transporting from the grainy film stock look to the warm and almost idyllic shots of New York City. The filmmaking style itself feels plucked straight out of cinema history. Meanwhile the lush period-perfect set designs and Phoenix Mellow’s elegant costumes work hand-in-hand with the jazzy and soulful sounds of Fabrice Lecomte’s score to create a rich and vibrant setting that’s easy to get lost in. I found myself admiring something in nearly every frame.
With “Sylvie’s Love” Eugene Ashe has made a swooning love story that feels so distinctly old-fashioned some may have a hard time connecting. The story doesn’t always explain the motivations of its characters well and certain plot points could use more attention. But I love what Ashe is going for, both narratively and visually. This is more than a simple nostalgia piece. It’s a tender, heartfelt, and irresistibly sweet romance. But it’s also a fresh and welcomed story of the black experience set during a time when the movie industry had little interest in exploring their lives and their stories. “Sylvie’s Love” is streaming now on Prime Video.
VERDICT – 4 STARS