The Pho­to­graph de­picts a pic­ture-per­fect ro­mance, just in time for Valen­tine’s Day

The Globe and Mail (Ontario Edition) - - NEWS - JO­HANNA SCHNELLER

The Pho­to­graph CLAS­SI­FI­CA­TION: PG; 106 MIN­UTES

Writ­ten and di­rected by Stella Meghie

Star­ring Issa Rae, LaKeith Stan­field, Chante Adams, Rob Mor­gan and Lil Rel How­ery ★★★

Hol­ly­wood was built on the premise that au­di­ences want to watch beau­ti­ful people fall in love on a screen 30 feet high. For decades, we proved them right, show­er­ing ro­man­tic dra­mas with box of­fice dol­lars and awards. It baf­fles me that the stu­dios gave up on the genre. First, they let ro­mances de­volve al­most ex­clu­sively to ro­man­tic come­dies, and then they stopped mak­ing those, too.

That also must have baf­fled Cana­dian writer/di­rec­tor Stella Meghie (Jean of the Jone­ses, The Week­end), be­cause she has de­liv­ered – right on time for Valen­tine’s Day – an un­abashed, golden-lit, swoon-in­duc­ing, cap­i­tal-R Ro­mance, star­ring two of the most gor­geous people you will ever see, Issa Rae and LaKeith Stan­field. Her story has them inch-inch-inch to­ward love un­der vel­vety night skies to the slow pulse of a jazz score.

A ro­man­tic drama re­quires an ob­sta­cle to be sur­mounted, and this is where so many mod­ern films stum­ble. Take away the old bar­ri­ers – race, re­li­gion, class – and the ob­sta­cles feel forced. But Meghie has fig­ured out a plau­si­ble mod­ern bar­rier – the life­long cau­tious­ness of Mae (Rae), an as­sis­tant mu­seum cu­ra­tor in Queens, N.Y., which was in­stilled in her by her peri­patetic mother Christina (Chante Adams), an art pho­tog­ra­pher who pri­or­i­tized her work over re­la­tion­ships.

The film be­gins just af­ter Christina’s death. Going through her mother’s things, Mae dis­cov­ers two let­ters (one for her, one for her fa­ther) and a rare photo of Christina her­self. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Michael (Stan­field), a re­porter, sees the same photo in the house of an in­ter­view sub­ject, Isaac (Rob Mor­gan). Michael seeks Mae out, and here the swoon­ing starts, as they gin­gerly melt into love. The plot tog­gles be­tween Mae’s love story with Michael and Christina’s with Isaac, when she was Mae’s age. You may think of The Note­book, and I sus­pect that would be just fine with Meghie. The first films she fell for, she has said, were ro­mances: Poetic Jus­tice (from 1993, with Janet Jack­son) and Love Jones (1997, with Nia Long).

In ad­di­tion to her fea­tures, Meghie has be­come a go-to di­rec­tor for tele­vi­sion series, in­clud­ing Rae’s HBO show, In­se­cure. Meghie and Rae hit it off there, and Rae’s abil­ity to hide her vul­ner­a­bil­ity with hu­mour is tai­lor-made for Mae.

In­ter­est­ingly, how­ever, the most vul­ner­a­ble people in The Pho­to­graph are Isaac and Michael. They’re the ones who stam­mer on dates; they’re the ones who are filled with rue for the loves that got away. Michael’s the one who gets that ro­mance­movie trope, the con­fi­dant who is also comic re­lief – in this case, his mar­ried brother Kyle, played by Lil Rel How­ery. By giv­ing the guys the most aching lines – such as Isaac’s, “I didn’t know how to be with a woman I couldn’t keep up with” – Meghie shows us a softer side to black men not com­monly seen in Amer­i­can films.

Meghie’s films don’t con­form to con­ven­tional plot struc­ture; her ap­proach is more mu­si­cal, more fluid. As a re­sult, her rhythms are some­times a lit­tle off, as the plot wan­ders down this or that de­tour. On the plus side, she makes time for nat­u­ral­is­tic con­ver­sa­tions, such as Mae and Michael’s first-date de­bate about mu­si­cians. (She’s Team Drake, he’s all about Ken­drick La­mar.)

Note that it’s Mae who gets the sassier lines. She also makes the grand ro­man­tic ges­ture in the film’s last act; Meghie had to per­suade her fi­nanciers to trust her on that one. She was right. The Pho­to­graph is Mae’s story; the cy­cle of run­ning away from love is hers to break. It’s her turn to be the vul­ner­a­ble one. Now it’s the au­di­ence’s turn to prove that ro­mance isn’t dead af­ter all.

The Pho­to­graph opens on Feb. 14

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