While on assignment in Louisiana, journalist Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) interviews a man named Isaac (Rob Morgan). Michael is struck by a photo in Isaac’s home of a woman (Chante Adams) and decides to follow up on the woman’s story when he returns to New York. She is a recently deceased photographer, and she left behind letters to Isaac and her daughter Mae (Issa Rae). It is through this photograph that Mae and Michael collide, and they do so with an immediate sense of romantic connection.
Stella Meghie’s The Photograph oscillates between Michael and Mae’s present day relationship and the story of Mae’s mother, Christina, who moved to New York in the late 1980s to pursue her career. Christina left people behind in this move, and it becomes evident that Michael may be setting himself up to be in a similar position. Michael’s feelings for Mae only complicate things further.
The Photograph occasionally ripples with sensuality, but it more often subsides into a placid state of familiarity. The film relies on well-worn archetypal characters to form a foundation around its frame narrative—he is told that he is unable to commit in a relationship; she says that she is unsure of how to be herself. As such, the story is not striking out for novelty.
All the same, there is an indelible charm to the lead pairing of Rae and Stanfield. It is easy to see why they swoon for each other, as both performers are effortlessly charismatic. I must admit that, while the film is not an exceptional addition to its genre, I found myself swept up in these performances. The supporting performances are also strong, adding tonal layers to an otherwise conventional film. Morgan and Adams bring an emotional weight to the frame story.
There is some corny and on-the-nose dialogue that makes some scenes feel simplistic, and the somewhat bare story lacks staying power. But Meghie’s script is earnest in the best type of way, developing passionate characters which are worthy of attention despite their flaws. And Robert Glasper’s warm, rich score adds to the sensual fullness.
While it may be base-level, I appreciate the film’s thematic undercurrent, which says that life does not stop for you to figure out your path. What falls by the wayside as a result of this are sacrifices to be reckoned with. Meghie plays around with this idea in a way that is blunt but not saccharine or overly sentimental. This is a message that other romantic dramas reckon with but oftentimes in a less substantive manner. The Photograph may not boast a unique story, but it at least aspires to provide this substance.
The Photograph: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)