The Photograph was written and directed by Stella Meghie, and stars Lakeith Stanfield as Michael Block, a reporter working for a New York-centric news outlet called The Republic, who is on assignment in New Orleans when he meets a man named Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), a third generation crab fisherman whose long lost love Christina (Chanté Adams) was a former photographer. Having been intrigued by a photograph of Christina that Jefferson had taken when they were together, Michael begins to put together a piece on the doomed couple; luckily for him, Christina’s now-grown daughter Mae (Issa Rae) also works in New York as a museum curator, and after Michael asks Mae to meet in order to discuss the photograph of her mother, the two begin to interact more frequently over their shared interest in the story, and start to become closer to each other than either of them realized they could be. But Mae’s mother was never very good at love, and if Mae is the same way, the relationship could be doomed before it ever really begins. It’s up to Michael and Mae both to determine whether or not being together is what they really want, or if going their separate ways to pursue their own paths is a more practical way to approach their future. This film also stars Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris, Y’lan Noel, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Chelsea Peretti, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into The Photograph. I had heard some good things sure, and celebrations of black love and romance like this don’t come around too often outside of when the distribution studio is gunning for some Oscars (which is ridiculous, but that’s another conversation), so I was certainly looking forward to it, but if we’re being honest, the trailer didn’t have much in the way of impressionability. Every time it came on before a different movie I was at the theater to watch, all I could think was that I had forgotten it was coming out so soon, and I hoped it would be good, but it probably wouldn’t make a lot of money without a more dedicated marketing campaign. While I can’t comment on whether or not it’s made the requisite amount of dollars to be called a success, however, what I can say is that the other two thoughts I had were pretty well made good on, although even there, only to a fault.
Don’t get me wrong, The Photograph is a good movie that’s worth watching at least once, and is definitely the least annoying of the weekend’s new releases you could take your (now late) Valentine’s date to, but it still feels like it’s missing some element that other romantic movies released around Valentine’s day have over it. For a little while, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but after thinking about it more extensively, I came to realize that there’s simply not a lot of development put into our main characters. That’s not to say that there’s no development, but the closest we get to knowing who Mae is is through how she reacts to a letter her mother left her after she passed, detailing how she wished she was better at love. There’s one conversation on a bench with her father, and one later after a development between them takes place, but apart from that and one talk where she and Michael discuss different rap artists, we don’t really know what makes her tick; ditto with Michael. One of the things a love story has to have to make you care about the lovers in the first place is memorable, dynamic characters, and while they’re hardly caricatures or empty husks, or anything like that, the main characters in the film are so thinly drawn, you could practically see through them…in the wrong way. This can also cause personal character beats in the story to feel flat, leaving you with little feeling one way or the other as to how things turn out, even if you don’t see it coming.
It could be that the relatively thin characters are also a result of the split timelines, one telling the story of Michael and Mae, the other of a young Isaac Jefferson and Christina. Both of these stories have compelling elements to them, but whereas Michael and Mae’s storyline seems (or at least feels) devoid of real stakes or consequence, the one concerning young Isaac and Christina seems to be focused on nothing except those stakes. Truth be told, the past storyline was the more interesting one, and personally, I would have liked to see more of that one play out. It may not have had the chemistry of Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae, but it felt as if that story actually had quite a bit more in its back pocket that it never got to use, and the way the two stories are joined together doesn’t really follow any sort of thematic or emotional narrative; it feels like they’re only tied together because circumstance caused them to be, not because it makes sense for the story, and that can cause the hour and a half runtime to feel a full hour longer than it really is.
There are also more than a few moments where the movie’s refusal to let moments breathe got kind of annoying. Having smooth jazz as the musical score choice for a film is a risky bet, depending on the kind of film it is, and where the jazz score is placed, and this movie makes all the wrong bets with its placements. During scenes where characters are meant to be having a quiet, reflective moment, or we’re supposed to feel something for them, the score’s unceasing noise dissuades the viewer from attempting to empathize with what’s happening on screen. It almost feels as if it’s meant to be telling us “this is an important moment,” but has no sense of boundary or how to let that importance rest in the minds of the audience. If you don’t know the moment is meant to mean something to the character, the score will make you know, whether you like it or not, and thus, you are put off from trying to know in the first place.
I don’t want to get too hung up on the negatives, though. As I stated above, this is still a good movie, even with its flaws, and a lot of that good comes from the performances. The performances in the movie are great all around. Stanfield and Rae have fantastic chemistry with each other, and if the film had a more developed script, we might be able to actually feel that chemistry a lot more, but as it stands, just watching it happen isn’t bad either. The two have such a great dynamic that even during the scenes when nothing in particular was happening, I was locked in, just waiting to see if they would kiss or if they wouldn’t, if they would get together or if they wouldn’t. I haven’t been that focused on a ‘will they/won’t they’ relationship I didn’t already know the inevitable answer to for quite some time, and the way Stanfield and Rae sell the development of their relationship over the course of the film is certainly one of the movie’s chief strengths.
Stanfield and Rae aren’t the film’s only good performances, though. In fact, they may not even be the two best on screen the whole time. Those honors would belong to Rob Morgan. Y’lan Noel, and Chanté Adams. Morgan has been a remarkable supporting player in more than a few things, and the fact that he makes such a lasting impact here with hardly any screen time at all should surprise no one who saw The Last Black Man in San Fransisco last year or any other movie he’s been in. He is spot on every single time he’s on screen, bringing genuine depth and weight to a character whose significance to the story relies entirely on who’s performing that part. He is a genuine revelation as an actor, and while he doesn’t get to really show just how revelatory he is here, you can bet that he will be standing on the Dolby Theater stage at some point in his lifetime. It’s the pairing of Noel and Adams that steals the show, however, as the young flashback versions of Isaac and Christina. Not only do the two have chemistry to spare, but their charisma as young performers in their own right could have carried an entire movie of their own, and if their segments of this movie are any indication, they definitely should at some point or another. Each of them brings a great vulnerability and loads of nuance to their respective characters, and it’s their performances that make that section of the film the more interesting of the two timelines by which the story is split.
The film is also very well shot. That might seem like a small thing in regards to how a romantic love story is told, but you’d be surprised how often love stories thrown into February get their cinematography boiled down to ‘shot, reverse shot,’ and then call it a day. There are more than a few times in the film that the camera follows the characters around places, entire hallways, around whole buildings, and keeps the same frame the entire time, with DP Mark Schwartzbard moving that frame to accommodate the most compelling of the images he needs to tell this story. There is one moment during the third act of the film as Michael is driving down a Louisiana road that is painfully obvious in how it was definitely shot on the same day as the opening scene and the blocking just mirrored that to give the impression of it being a different day (and once you see it, you can’t not notice it, which is distracting), but apart from that, it is a genuinely pleasant movie to look at, especially in how it captures the quieter parts of New Orleans, and some of the people within them.
The Photograph is a perfectly harmless valentine’s day love story, and a pretty good watch on the whole, that nonetheless feels like it’s somehow missing something every other good love story seems to have, and more than anything, it seems as if that something is well-developed characters, and a more developed script. It’s not as if the film is in any way bad, or even disappointing in any meaningful sense, but it just feels like there’s meant to be more to the story than what we walk out with at the end of the credits. The performances are all good, especially in the supporting cast (Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae have great chemistry), and it’s really well-shot for not having to be particularly notable in that department, but its pacing, overly-used musical score, general lack of flair, and severely dragged-out pacing may have at least one pair of each couple in the audience starting to nod off. In short, is it worth checking out? Sure. Just don’t expect the next Big Sick or anything.
I’m giving “The Photograph” a 6.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.