The Photograph

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:22 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 11, 2020
Copyright 2019 Universal

Of all the reasons to see a movie, there is none better than this: two gorgeous, immeasurably magnetic and talented actors falling in love on screen. And so, the universe (and Universal) have given us a luscious valentine of a movie, Issa Rae and Lakieth Stanfield starring in “The Photograph,” the kind of romantic drama audiences keep complaining they don’t make any more. From the steamy moments with a storm outside the window to an Al Green LP to flirtatious banter about the relative merits of Kendrick Lamar and Drake, the swoony romanticism is captivating all the way to the last moment.

Rae (who also co-produced) plays Mae, an art curator mourning the recent death of her mother, Cristina (Chanté Adams), a talented photographer who was, as she describes herself in a video interview, better at taking pictures than at love. Rae is sorting through her mother’s things, assembling a retrospective exhibit of her work. And she is sorting through her feelings about her mother, already complicated, with additional complications coming from a letter to “my Mae” she left behind. Cynthia’s instructions were for Mae to read the letter before delivering a second sealed letter to her father.

Stanfield, always a most thoughtful and charismatic actor, plays Michael, a reporter who happens on Cristina’s photos when he interviews a man who knew her before she left him and her home in Louisiana for a career in New York. He meets Mae when he is researching a story about Cynthia’s life. Stanfield played the break-up boyfriend in the popular Netflix films “Someone Great” and “The Incredible Jessica James,” (along with memorable appearances in “Short Term 12,” “Atlanta,” and “Sorry to Bother You””). He gets to be the romantic lead here, and his performance beautifully conveys his character’s confidence and vulnerability, and his immediate connection to Mae.

Both Mae and Michael are hurting from recent break-ups. And Michael has applied for a job in London, so that makes it difficult to start a new relationship in New York. But as always, the real obstacle to romance is the struggle between the yearning for intimacy, for truly knowing and being known, and the fear of exactly that. It may be lonely to be single, but it is safe, or it feels that way. “I’m comfortable” being unhappy and jaded, one of them says.

We go back in time from the present-day story of Mae and Michael to see the story of young Cristina and Isaac (Rob Morgan in present day, Y’lan Noel of “Insecure” in the past). They have a strong connection, but he is rooted in Louisiana and she has ambitions that can only be realized in New York. We see Cynthia’s conflicted relationship with her own mother (a terrific Marsha Stephanie Blake). We see her resolve, even after her heart is broken when she learns she cannot expect Isaac to wait for her forever.

But the heart of the film is the romance between Mae and Michael, with a suitably gorgeous score by Robert Glasper and lush cinematography by Mark Schwartzbard. I have complained in the past about the failure to light the skin of black performers correctly, especially when there are white performers in the same scene. Schwartzbard lights them beautifully, bringing out all of the rich, golden tones of their skin. Interestingly, most of the photos taken by Cynthia that we see are black and white, striking images, but all in shades of gray. We’re told she hated having her own picture taken, but we see one, taken by Isaac, tellingly a bit out of focus. And we see her take one self-portrait, holding then-four-year-old Mae in the Louisiana house she shared with her own mother. But we never see the image. Instead, we see them ourselves, through Schwartzbard’s beautiful cinematography.

Lil Rel Howery provides (as usual) some warm humor as Michael’s brother, with the always-wonderful Teyonah Parris as his wife, and up and coming star Kelvin Harrison Jr. is excellent in a small role as an intern in Michael’s office. Along with Chelsea Peretti as Michael’s boss and Courtney B. Vance as her sympathetic father, the cast gives the central characters the context of a larger world, where we see them as real people of accomplishment and confidence who have to learn how that fits with the vulnerability of allowing themselves to need and be needed in a romantic relationship.

“The Photograph” is a beautiful story, beautifully told, filled with heart and wise about love.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and a situation, issues of paternity, sad deaths of parents, drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why couldn’t Christine tell her daughter the truth? What would you ask someone to get an idea of who they are?

If you like this, try: “Beyond the Lights,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Love Jones,” and “Something New”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues movie review Movies Romance

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