Writer-director Stella Meghie kicks off the romantic holiday weekend with “The Photograph,” a love story featuring a rarity in big studio presentations: the openly affectionate and physically uninhibited courtship between black leads. Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield are magnetic together from their first scene onward, never overplaying the bumps that come with the early stages of dating. With Robert Glasper’s slow jazz score softening the mood and easing the lovers into safe vulnerability, this movie should have been a delectable appetizer for Valentine’s Day. Instead, the drama is saddled by an obsession with past regrets that treat future relationship warning signs like idle concerns. If going all-in means ignoring red flags and impractical long-term solutions, why should viewers support such a problematic union?
From the beginning, coincidences are conveniently established to bring Rae’s Mae Morton and Stanfield’s Michael Block together. During his research for a retrospective article to honor Christina Eames (Chanté Adams) – a famed New York photographer who recently succumbed to cancer – reporter Michael Block interviews one of Christina’s old flames, Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan). The ex-boyfriend shows Block a photograph not featured among her public portfolio; Isaac also alerts Block that Christina has a daughter if he wishes to gather further information. This brief interaction makes no effort to hide an obvious twist, though the fact that it’s more self-evident to viewers than the reporter covering the story is troublesome.
Of course, Michael Block does the best he can to bury the lede upon meeting Mae, a successful assistant curator thriving in New York City like her career-oriented mother before her. While their connection is undeniable, it’s hard not to question Michael’s pursuant intentions since he just got out of a prior relationship. It would be remiss to ignore the possibility that Michael views Mae as a temporary rebound solution, but Stanfield’s carefree aura and laser-focus conversational skills suggest otherwise. Michael’s relaxed yet attentive flirtation makes it apparent that he’s a man who sincerely leads with his emotions. The downside to his character is that he automatically expects reciprocity from a prospective life-partner.
Issa Rae comes off best in this mixed-messaged romance. Seeing Rae employ naturalism and an unaffected sense of humor underscores how deep her performance range is, with more unbridled potential in the wings for future roles. Because Rae carves out a real woman who isn’t weighed down by lovesick histrionics and male necessity, it’s disappointing to watch the script try to undo all that makes Mae noteworthy. When her father (Courtney B. Vance) hands Mae sealed letters from her late mother to read upon her passing, Mae is transported back to her mom’s past to revisit old love wounds and protected secrets. This journey, which takes viewers through poignant flashbacks of a young Christina driven out to fend for herself by her ailing mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake), appears to judge an ambitious woman for leaving a man behind to pursue her dreams in New York.
These letters only make Mae’s present confusion regarding her feelings for Michael – who has a job interview in London and might not even be around to cement a lasting foundation – even more complicated. The film’s ending feels less like a realistic compromise than it does a cop-out. When advertised dramas fall into rom-com trope territory, it’s clear that studios remain pressured to purify love rather than work through its kinks. With moving performances and heartfelt recollections of passionate young love, “The Photograph” should sizzle instead of sputter to predictable results.