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Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Photograph

Stella Meghie's The Photograph is an effective romantic drama, and I am recommending it, but at the same time, I have to question her decision to fill her screenplay with so much plot.  This is a movie about lovers both in the past and the present, and how they connect with each other.  It's also about heartbreak, regrets, a child born from passionate love, and a couple who wonder if they can stay together if their careers take them to different parts of the world. 

Did the movie really need all of this, when the main couple at the center of the plot, Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) and Mae (Issa Rae), are charismatic enough to carry a movie without so many soap opera-like situations surrounding their enormous chemistry?  They are what make this film work, and there were times when I had to question why they were being buried under such a massive amount of story.  Why not just make a simple love story about them coming together?  There's a reason why some of my favorite romantic films have been Richard Linklater's Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), which is simply about a couple in different stages of their lives and relationship, and actually follows them as they have conversations.  We get to focus on just them, and not the story piling itself upon them. 

That being said, I am still recommending this, because there is a lot of heart and great performances to it.  Things kick off when Michael, a New York reporter, travels to Louisiana to interview Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), who used to know a photographer named Christina (Chanté Adams) before she was famous.  Michael's been assigned to write an article on her, and wants to know about her past.  Turns out Isaac used to be in deeply in love with her back in 1984 as a young man (Y'lan Noel), but she left him in order to pursue her career in photography in New York.  He never forgot her, and her pictures from their time together still line the walls of his home.  When Michael returns to New York, he decides to dig further, and tracks down Christina's adult daughter, Mae, who works at a museum in Queens that will be hosting a gallery of her mom's work after she recently passed away from a battle with cancer.  There's an instant connection between the two, and when they have dinner together during their second meeting, we can tell that Michael is interested in much more than finding out about her mother when it comes to Mae.

This sets about the film's main plot, as we follow the early stages of Michael and Mae's relationship.  There is a lot of hesitation.  He recently got his heart broken by his previous girlfriend, and she is career-minded.  There's also the issue of Michael possibly moving on to work at a different publication in London, and all the difficulties that a long-distance relationship provides.  The movie also periodically cuts to a parallel plot that shows Isaac and Christina's relationship nearly 40 years ago, the trials that they faced, and ultimately how and why Christina decided to choose her career over love.  Naturally, both plots will eventually intersect in a very soap opera manner, mostly due to letters that Christina left for her daughter to read after she died.  I never exactly felt lost by the film's continuous time jumping narrative, but it does seem incredibly busy for what is essentially a simple romantic story.

To its credit, The Photograph does handle the multiple plots and characters pretty well.  Like I said, I never felt confused.  I just was enjoying the scenes between Stanfield and Rae as the modern day lovers so much, I wanted to get lost more in their scenes together, instead of having the movie distracting me with so many revelations.  What is here does work quite well.  Both of the main couples the film focuses on in the different timelines are likable, and there is obvious romantic and personal chemistry between the actors.  And despite the film's PG-13 rating, this still feels like an adult love story that hasn't been watered down in order to draw in younger viewers.  It never feels like the film has been compromised in any way.

So, there is a lot to like here, and I can definitely see it finding an audience.  I wish it all the best.  I just wanted to spend a little more time with the lovers, and a little less being pulled across time and the script adding more complications.  Stella Meghie shows a real talent for writing adult characters here, and I can hope that with her next project she trusts in her characters enough to just let them be themselves, instead of throwing so much plot at us.

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