Synopsis: A love story from the past effects present day lovers with their own issues to overcome.
The Photograph is a low key love story that examines the sadness of wasted chances and the importance of honest communication in a relationship. It also glamourizes Queens (Queens! The new Brooklyn?) and succinctly shows how to set up a dark room.
Writer-director Stella Meghie has taken The Notebook route: flashing back and forth between lovers in the past and lovers present-day. The Notebook should be all about the young lovers in the past (Rachel McAdams & Ryan Gosling), as the present-day story is depressing and dull. Fortunately, Ms. Meghie’s past & present-day stories are equally engaging. Mae (Issa Rae) and Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) are upwardly mobile in their careers, but their love lives are another matter. Mae is emotionally reserved and can’t commit. Michael jumps right in and then jumps out after he burns himself out a few months into a relationship.
I thought that ‘the photograph” in question would be central to the story: hiding something significant about a character or their story. Not really. Although, in retrospect, you could say it captured the character Christina’s restless nature. Christina (Chanté Adams) is Mae’s mom, who will develop a celebrated career in photography. Her lover is a fisherman, Isaac (Y’lan Noel). Their story takes place in mid-eighties Louisiana.
Christina is ambitious and wants to go to the big city (not New Orleans, but New York) to work on her photography career. Her mother is unsympathetic; she tells Christina that she needs to get a job and stop cavorting with her loser boyfriend. Ouch. Christina just frowns and fiddles with her camera. (We get it, she is a PHOTOGRAPHER.) She probably should get a job, but she is too busy taking pictures of everyone and everything. Her bf isn’t a loser, but he wants to stay put, working on the coast and marrying Christina.
Jump to present-day… Issa (let’s switch to the actors’ names, instead of characters’, because they have a better ring to them) works as an assistant curator at Queens Museum. (I bet the real holder of said job wishes they made the salary to afford her spacious apartment with the great kitchen.) She’s working on a retrospective of her mother’s photography; a distant person whom she never understood.
Meanwhile, journalist LaKeith is in New Orleans interviewing a middle-aged man (Christina’s ex) about how his life was impacted by the Deepwater Horizon Spill and Hurricane Katrina. Negatively, obviously. But LaKeith seems more interested in the photograph of 1980’s Christina that he sees on the wall. As soon as he gets back to New York, he rushes to interview Issa about her mom. Then starts flirting with her about two seconds in. Wait til Human Resources hears about this.
A spark–yes, just one– flies between them. The Proposal isn’t a hot love affair. It’s more like a good first date. Hard to create heart-pounding drama when the obstacles are so quotidian: how open should I be with someone I’m just getting to know?
The could-be lovers have some help sorting things out. As usual, in rom-com-ish movies, there are friends and family whose main interest in life is the romantic options of the protagonists. Issa has a work friend (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones– Peggy! in the best musical ever, Hamilton) who encourages her to get with LaKeith. Not earning any points on the Bechdel test, all of their conversations are about LaKeith. I mean, yes, he looks good and is obviously interested in Issa, but maybe they could talk about say, an exhibit or neighborhood lunch options.
Meanwhile, LaKeith has a funny brother (Lil Rel Howery) who gives him unsolicited advice about love. He is pretty funny, but he is only allowed to communicate through jokes. His movie wife is good at laughing constantly. Even LaKeith’s little nieces get in on the act– spilling the tea to Issa about LaKeith’s most recent ex.
There is plenty of good lifestyle porn– Issa’s apartment, her cool job, trips to New Orleans every fifteen minutes where the couple go to hip bars with live music to dance to. The love scenes are cut off before they get too steamy (unfortunately), but there are longing looks and passionate kisses from LaKeith. Issa Rae is a major talent (writing, producing, acting), but her acting is a weak link in this movie. Her mom has passed recently (no spoilers, we learn this in the first scene), but she just sort of shrugs it off as a curiosity in convos with her dad. And she tells us that she wants to be with LaKeith, but her emotions seem half-hearted on-screen. Still… viewers will root for the appealing couple.
Like real couples, they have to reconcile career ambitions and relationship expectations. All achievable, with one possible exception… she likes Drake and he prefers Kendrick Lamar.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Realistic love story, engaging couple
Humor Highlight: Lil Rey Howery as a funny sidekick