Valentine’s Day is the perfect occasion for a studio to release a big screen romance. Romance is a part of nearly every marketing campaign this week. It is the rare time of year when guys will agree to go see a movie about love with their wife/girlfriend. Amazingly, only one movie is taking advantage of that this year. It is The Photograph, a multigenerational drama about two women nervous when it comes to love and the men who want them to take a chance. It has charming stars and a good pace, but its connected stories prove to be slightly more material than it can handle. Still, it is a simple, adult, love story; sweet and just romantic enough to do the job.
It is about two different couples linked by blood and separated by time. Christina was a photographer who left her Louisiana home, and Isaac, the man she loved, to pursue a career in New York City. After her death three decades later, her daughter, Mae, begins a relationship with Michael, a reporter writing a story on Isaac. The movie is mainly focused on Mae and Michael, but it regularly jumps back to the past as they uncover more details about Christina and Isaac.
As usual with romances, The Photograph (101 minutes without the end credits) lives or dies on the chemistry between its leads. Mae is played by Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield is Michael. Stanfield is an actor I look forward to seeing. He chooses intriguing projects and tends to add something different to each of his characters. I never know exactly what to expect from him, though it is always interesting. Rae is a likable actress, effortlessly able to display intelligence and thoughtfulness. They make for a good pairing. Within the first twenty minutes, I wanted them to be together. That definitely makes it easier to get past some of the duller aspects of The Photograph.
The biggest example of that is the scenes between Christina and the younger Isaac. The performers (Chante Adams and Y’lan Noel) are fine, yet their characters are mostly plot devices. The movie never really connects with their story. It is attempting to tease the past to build suspense for the future. Looking at her mother’s life forces Mae to reflect on her own. However, that approach does not totally work here because there is no depth to the issues at play. The path of the older relationship is immediately clear (since we are seeing it in flashback) and what we learn is not particularly illuminating or surprising. It is designed in a way intended to get us to apply the mistakes of the older couple to the contemporary one. That shorthand is supposed to add drama, but it largely fails because it is in place of actually getting to know the characters.
Despite the fact that The Photograph only sees Mae and Michael as participants in a romance and leaves them underdeveloped, Stanfield and Rae still make for a captivating couple. The scenes where they begin falling for each other are convincing. When the movie backed off of its plot and let its leads create a relationship, I enjoyed myself. Rae tries to bring real feeling to her discoveries (occasionally succeeding), while Stanfield has some amusing bits with Lil Rel Howery as his brother and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a friend. Even with that, it hinges on the moments when its stars are together. That is when it works. It gives audiences just enough romance to make this a decent way to spend a Valentine’s weekend evening with someone you care about.
3 out of 5
LaKeith Stanfield as Michael Block
Issa Rae as Mae
Chante Adams as Christina Eames
Rob Morgan as Isaac Jefferson
Y’lan Noel as Young Isaac Jefferson
Lil Rel Howery as Kyle
Kelvin Harrison Jr as Andy
Written and Directed Stella Meghie