Produced by James Lopez, Will Packer
Written and Directed by Stella Meghie
Starring Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield,
Chelsea Peretti, Kelvin Harrison Jr.,
Chante Adams, Jasmine Cephas Jones,
Y’lan Noel, Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris
Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance
Valentine’s Day romantic releases tend to be treacly, formulaic, and forgettable. This should not be a surprise – a Hallmark holiday generally calls for a Hallmark movie. It also makes The Photograph even more of a treat, as the sweetness in the film is sophisticated and richly developed into a love story fit for the “grown folks” crowd.
Moving back and forth between the past and present, writer and director Stella Meghie weaves together the love stories of a daughter and mother who unknowingly share similarities in their apprehension of love.
Aspiring photographer Christina’s story (Chante Adams) is told through the letters she leaves behind after her passing.
Adams is fire and radiance as Christina strives for more than her tiny life in Louisiana. She’s the most engaging of all the female leads, but her storyline continuously suffers from cutting off at some of the most interesting parts.
Christina’s daughter Mae (Issa Rae) never knew very much about her mother, but now finds herself grappling simultaneously with this sudden loss and a sudden gain in knowledge. While curating a retrospective of her mother’s work, Christina’s photographs catch another’s eye – newly single journalist Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield).
On uneasy footing as her worldview shifts, Mae is guarded against even a hint of dishonesty. But the chemistry is irresistible and the two hit it off immediately. Their relationship moves smoothly and slowly, and stays without conflict for a surprisingly long time. It is easy to lose yourself in the gentle waves of romance that Mae and Michael float in.
Rae and Stanfield are made to be in scenes together, though Rae gets the lion’s share of the benefit. She brightens noticeably when she has another to share the screen with. LaKeith Stanfield is growing closer to being a household name, continuing a successful run with his smoldering yet genuine take on Michael.
Whether he is chilling at his married brother’s kitchen table (played hilariously by Lil Rel) or charming Rae’s Mae into a kiss in a restaurant booth, Stanfield cuts an arresting figure. As Michael explores a relationship with Mae, he tries to learn from his history while she is looking to not repeat her mother’s mistakes in love.
As they move from the Queens Museum to Brooklyn townhouses and Southern single family homes, they are followed by rich set designs. Warmth flows through carefully curated Black art pieces and toys and transitions to the open office sterility of Michael’s workspace or the vintage charm of Christina’s first home.
The jazzy score could swell less to set a softer tone in several scenes, but it sweeps us up in romance much of the time.
The Photograph is more than a great date movie. It is a beautiful study in the idea that a romantic movie does not need to be about overcoming insurmountable odds to be engaging – audiences can also enjoy an uncomplicated romance that lingers in the best and easiest of times. It’s a Valentine’s Day message to savor.