Thursday, February 13, 2020

Review: "The Photograph"

I've been a fan of LaKeith Stanfield since I saw him in his first movie, "Short Term 12." I think he's one of the finest young actors working in film today, though he's mostly had small parts in big films or big parts in small films. Most people would probably recognize him as the crazy neighbor in "Get Out."

I'm less familiar with Issa Rae, other than I thought she was about the only good thing going on in last year's execrable "Little." She has natural screen presence and solid comedic timing.

So I was excited to see them together in a romantic drama, "The Photograph." It's a fairly standard new-love sort of story, in which two wounded people meet, fall in love and then contend with challenges to their young relationship.

But writer/director Stella Meghie lends the story a certain kind of slow-burn soulfulness. We spend a lot of time in extreme close-up shots with this couple, almost like we're being enveloped in their embrace.

He plays Michael Block, a writer for the fictional Republic magazine. It's one of those quasi-intellectual New York publications where reporters apparently work on a single story for a couple of months. He recently broke up with his girlfriend, Tessa (never seen), and is contemplating a move to work for the Associated Press in London.

She is Mae, the daughter of a semi-famous photographer, Christina Eames, who has just died. She's the assistant curator for a museum in Queens that apparently pays well enough for her to afford a lavish, sprawling penthouse apartment in the Big Apple.

Mae's relationship with her mom was strained by her dedication to work, and is making her way through a long letter her mother left for her -- with another one she's supposed to give to her father.

They connect through the way every journalist finds love in the movies: by sleeping with a source. While interviewing a fisherman in New Orleans, Isaac (Rob Morgan), Michael comes across photographs by Christina, is intrigued by them and looks up Mae, who is organizing an exhibit of her mother's work.

He asks her out, and things go from there -- including a rendezvous in Louisiana that kicks things into another gear.

(Seriously, Hollywood: having sex with your sources is kind of a big no-no in journalism. Like, end-your-career kinda stuff.)

The story slips back and forth in time, as we witness the new romance begin to bloom and watch as an old one between Isaac and Christina founders. They are played in the flashback sequences by Y'lan Noel and Chante Adams, respectively, and their onscreen chemistry is just electric.

Lil Rel Howery plays Kyle, Michael's older brother, who offers ribbing advice and an example (cautionary tale?) of stable family life. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is Andy, a younger colleague of Michael's who looks up to him, and Chelsea Peretti plays Sara, their passive-aggressive boss.

Mae and Michael are both in the process of discovering things about themselves, and about each other. Mae wonders if she will have the same trouble maintaining deep relationships her mom did. Michael questions if he's capable of staying in one place and sinking down roots.

Some may find it an odd comparison, but tonally this movie reminded me a lot of "The Notebook," and not just because of the Southern setting. It's a movie about the joy of falling in love but also leavened with a sense of regret and loss. We hope good things will happen to these people, knowing that hearts break at least as often as they leap.

At the center is Stanfield and Rae. They're both beautiful in an offbeat sort of way, him with his slouching charm and her with a smile that could easily turn into a frown or a boisterous laugh. We enjoy just sitting back and watching them go.

"The Photograph" isn't the fastest-paced romance, but sometimes it pays to slow down and just bask in the moment.

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