It’s rare that a modern romantic film doesn’t edge into excessive melodrama, or forced to take on another genre entirely. Luckily, The Photograph elegantly avoids either of those fates. It’s allowed to be a sumptuous, sexy, realistic love story that moves at a gentle pace. It’s romantic enough for a couple’s night out, while also having enough banter and interesting story for a girls’ night out viewing.
The Photograph contains two intersecting love stories, but the primary one happens in present day when Mae (Issa Rae) loses her estranged mother Christina to cancer. Christina was a famous photographer who seemed more devoted to her work than her daughter. She leaves Mae a mysterious photograph and lengthy letter. This sends Mae on a journey from her home in New York City to the New Orleans of her mother’s youth to uncover secrets from the past. It also sends Mae right into contact with Michael (LaKeith Stanfield), a successful journalist who’s writing a story about Christina and her passing. The love stories then alternate between Mae and Michael’s budding romance, and Christina’s romance with her first love Isaac.
The film, written and directed by Stella Meghie, is shot in these gorgeous dark hues so all the actors look like every scene was shot during golden hour. Everyone glows and looks just a little extra gorgeous, not that they needed it because this cast is attractive across the board, but it creates a seriousness and a sensuality. The scenes are also paced in such a way that nothing seems particularly urgent except looks that indicate desire.
If it’s not apparent, this is a sexy movie without being too overt or gratuitous. A lot of the credit of those moments of subtle tension can go to Stanfield, who’s an interesting leading man. He’s handsome and his eyes are so emotional/expressive it makes audiences read into a glance. While his character would be seen by anyone as a catch, the way his character gets described by other characters doesn’t match up to the way Stanfield plays him. He gets described by his brother (played so warmly by sidekick MVP Lil Rel Howery) as someone who wore a top hat as best man (when no one else wore a hat) and is someone who falls hard constantly. Not only does Stanfield play Michael as too reserved to be quirky, but also almost languidly subdued. It’s disappointing in this film that LaKeith is so restrained because he’s at his best when he gets to play a bit outlandish. Issa Rae also seems to suffer from a forced restraint. One of the things that makes her shine as an actress is that her facial expressions make her an open book, and can also provoke laughs with an eye-roll or a side smile. The best moments in the film for her are those small, sweet, funny moments when she can respond with just a look. She’s at her sharpest with moments of witty repartee and humor, but she definitely doesn’t get enough of them in this film and her performance reads as flat.
Rae and Stanfield definitely have great chemistry on screen, but the plot and the device to go back and forth in time cuts their building romance at the knees. It also seems to press fast forward on their relationship in a way that seems oddly rushed for a film who paces action like honey dripping off a spoon. Both romance stories in past and present take these big jumps in plot, leaving big holes for emotion and romance and resentment to build. It becomes tedious and disappointing to watch a movie like this where the scenes move slowly, but the plot rushes forward. It doesn’t leave any room to really care or worry for the fate of the romance because it’s too busy hitting plot points.
Despite the structure making the film feel like snapshots of a romance, there’s something incredibly lovely about watching a film about black love that only gets to be about exactly that. How refreshing that this film can be a slice of life romance, with couples arguing over where to live for their careers or who’s better: Drake or Kendrick Lamar. There’s certainly several versions of those kind of indie romances with white couplings, so it’s about time black couples get the same relatable cinematic treatment.