THE PHOTOGRAPH review by Shyam Vedantam – Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield fall in love

THE PHOTOGRAPH review by Shyam Vedantam – Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield fall in love

Romantic comedies can be a dime a dozen, but they will always have a place in cinema. We yearn for romance, love, or even human connection. Even the less well-made films in this genre can be a special experience for someone if the production catches the viewer in the right moment in their lives, or has characters that the viewer can identify with on some level. The best films in the genre make audiences fall in love with falling in love.

In the new movie THE PHOTOGRAPH, Lakeith Stanfield stars as Michael Block, a journalist in New York investigating a story in a small town in Louisiana when he stumbles upon a man who has a missed connection with a famed photographer, Christina Eames (Chanté Adams), who moved away from their hometown to New York. Stanfield then tries to follow up on Eames, and meets the daughter, Mae (played by Issa Rae), only to find that Christina has passed away. Michael and Mae have an instant spark, and he tries to follow up on this budding connection. At the same time, Christina left Mae a long letter to read; they had a somewhat estranged relationship while she was alive, and Mae gets through the letter to learn more about her mother. Flashbacks tell the romance of Christina and the man in Louisiana (played by Y’lan Noel in flashbacks).

Fundamentally, a film in this genre depends on the performances and chemistry between the leads. The framing device – the current story with Stanfield and Rae vs the flashbacks with Noel and Adams – makes it so that the film must succeed through these hoops twice. The flashback storyline is only adequate, there isn’t much material in the script here. It’s believable enough, but clichéd and par for the course. However, Stanfield and Rae are outstanding. It almost feels voyeuristic watching scenes between them. Seeing their chemistry captured on celluloid is like watching fireworks trying to be restrained.

Rae, whose big break came with her HBO show “Insecure,” is easily a breakout here. Director Stella Meghie knows how to frame Rae as a film star rather underrated actress in a “small” television show; the film adopts warm colors, upscale mise-en-scene in apartments and townhomes, and sleek costuming for Rae. When she gives a wide smile, or laughs, it’s impossible to focus anywhere else in the frame. In previous years, it’s easy to see Will Smith in the Stanfield role. He has a different (more contemporary and of this generation), but similarly notable natural charisma. Stanfield’s mannerisms, line delivery, and overall character he gives the role is wholly his own and distinct. It’s impossible to think anyone would make the same choices he does.

While the push and pull of their romance carries the film, the flashback storyline weighs it down. The framing device is interesting and could be used to further inform the contemporary storyline. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do that here. This was further exacerbated by how compelling the contemporary storyline was. Every time a flashback happened, it felt like an unnecessary distraction. Meghie should’ve either worked on the flashbacks more, or just cut this whole sequence out of the film in lieu of just narration or a short story near the climax of the story. Admittedly though, this is in hindsight of seeing the final product and wanting more out of the Stanfield and Rae chemistry, storyline, and romance. Additionally, like so many other romantic comedies, the plot wraps up rather quickly and unconvincingly. The reason they can’t be together is due to Stanfield’s character, but the reasoning behind this is just hand-waved, so the stakes of the film fall flat.

Of note, the supporting parts of the film round out Meghie’s vision. Chelsea Peretti and Jasmine Cephas Jones have some fun as supporting characters. Kelvin Harrison Jr is the “best friend” character of Stanfield and he steals some decent laughs. As a side note, Harrison Jr has made a splash onto the film scene in the past year with LUCE and WAVES, and it is almost distracting to see him play a character so down the middle. The score by Robert Glasper is an interesting jazz mix that propels the film and contributes to the warm feelings it gives off.

The story leans on some clichés. The characters aren’t fully realized. The reason they can’t be together is flimsy. This is all forgivable by the sparks Meghie is able to capture between Rae and Stanfield. It’s easy to love their love. Ultimately, it’ll come down to how much audiences connect with their performances. That’s not a bad bet. The undeniable, leap-off-the-screen chemistry between Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield makes this a very watchable romantic comedy, with an overall grade of 6.5/10

THE PHOTOGRAPH opens February 14, 2020

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