Electric Chemistry Lights Up The Photograph
Part romantic drama, part family mystery, The Photograph is a beguiling portrait of contemporary romance by writer-director Stella Meghie. Anchored by two winning performances and a stellar supporting cast, it should herald the graduation of Issa Rae from television phenom to big screen star and further cement Lakeith Stanfield’s status as one of the most exciting and versatile actors of his generation. Ambitious young journalist Michael Block (Stanfield) is on assignment in Louisiana, reporting on the aftereffects of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. During an interview with crab fisherman Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), a tale of lost love and a captivating photograph of a young woman piques his interest. Meanwhile, in New York, museum curator Mae Morton (Rae) opens a safety deposit box containing the same photograph and two handwritten letters written by its subject--her mother, the acclaimed and recently deceased photographer Christina Eames (Chante Adams). Michael seeks Mae out at the museum, ostensibly to interview her about her mother, but sparks fly upon their meeting and romance quickly ensues. Their simmering flirtations are punctuated by flashbacks to Christina’s coming-of-age in Louisiana and her doomed courtship with the young Isaac (Y’lan Noel). If there’s one reason to see The Photograph, it’s the electric chemistry between its leads, who ably carry the film in a genre in which actors who look like them are rarely afforded the opportunity to take center stage. Rae, with her thousand-watt smile, was seemingly born to lead a film like this, and she delivers a restrained performance without dampening her natural effervescent charisma. Meanwhile, Stanfield, who has lately played off-beat weirdos or livewire scene stealers, eases into his role as a romantic lead with effortless charm and a smooth, unassuming casualness. Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard frames them in a soft, gauzy light, and the contemporary sequences take on the comforting qualities of a warm bath. As with any romantic drama, of course, complications arise, revealing hidden character depth and erecting obstacles for the relationship to overcome--or succumb to. Here, the central “mystery” of the film--Mae’s relationship with her mother, the enigmatic and secretive Christina--is arguably too heavy, and rather than balancing the main romantic plot, threatens to swallow it whole. The flashback-heavy structure of the film does blunt its momentum slightly, but fortunately, Rae and Stanfield’s irresistible chemistry is enough to prevail over any momentary thematic bumps, and Meghie and editor Shannon Baker Davis keep the plot humming along quickly enough to avoid too many lulls. They’re assisted by a knockout supporting cast that elevates every scene, breathing life into their few brief moments and suggesting greater depths that we never get to see, but could if we just followed them offscreen. Among the ensemble, Morgan once again stands out, delivering the latest in an impressive streak of devastating portrayals of ordinary men struggling to cope with loss and life’s heartbreaks (see, e.g., Mudbound, Just Mercy). His competition is fierce, however, as the rest of the cast is littered with talented performers imbuing their roles with far more vividness than they need to, creating a dynamic world of textured characters that feel real. It shouldn’t go without mention that all but one cast member are people of color, yet the film never explicitly deals with “issues of race.” Instead, Meghie populates the screen with black people just existing--falling in love, investigating family histories, and weighing job opportunities--without having to shoulder the burdens of history. In recent interviews with Indiewire and SSense, Meghie has described The Photograph as exactly the kind of movie she has always wanted to make: a studio-backed romantic drama starring black leads, that centers love, joy, and “contemporary stories about young black women.” Now that she’s accomplished that with just her second studio feature, I can’t wait to see what she does next.