“My Mae — I wish I had put as much courage into love as I put in my work.”
Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield) is a reporter doing a human interest story about the legacy of deceased photographer Christine Eames (Chante Adams). During the course of his investigation, he meets Mae Morton (Issa Rae), Christine’s estranged daughter and Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan and Y’lan Noel), Christine’s former lover. As both dwell on the lost love between Isaac and Christine, they begin to weave a love of their own.
“The Photograph” is the fourth film from director-writer Stella Meghie, who previously directed and wrote “Jean of the Joneses,” “Everything, Everything” and “The Weekend.” This film is further proof that she’s becoming a creative force to be reckoned with. Her script has some well-developed themes of loss, the potential for a loving relationship and the demands of work. Each is developed very well, though to go into detail would be spoilery.
I also loved how skillfully Meghie interweaves the past subplot with that of the present, with the latter having subtle callbacks to the former and really honing in on emotional payoff for both.
Her camerawork knows when to hang back and frame the actors against gorgeous backdrops. There’s some really good symmetry early on and the scenes set in coastal Louisiana are a colorful feast for the eyes. There’s a real standout near the middle, where Mae and Michael walk the empty streets of a late-night city after a storm, their shapes beautifully silhouetted against a dark urban background. Also, Mae has a really nice fedora in that scene, so it’s like the movie briefly steps into film noir territory for a bit.
Also, while the movie is PG-13 and lacks nudity, the love scenes are still smouldering with steam. The sexual and romantic tension is palpable, feeling emotionally driven and natural. That tension is further supported by the excellent cast.
Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, as expected, put out some good work. Both give very mature and grounded performances, with Rae especially giving an affecting portrayal of a hardworking woman who wants to try and find some love in her busy life. Stanfield is also excellent, as always, giving a very cool yet vulnerable take on a guy who becomes intrigued with the personal connections he’s making in what should have been just a standard assignment.
The chemistry between the two is also very realistically developed, with attraction building up naturally as it coalesces into the beginnings of a serious relationship.
Another thing — have either Rae or Stanfield ever been bad? That’s a serious question because they’ve both knocked it out the park in everything I’ve seen them in, even Stanfield in the mediocre “Death Note” movie Netflix did a few years back.
The movie also has one hell of a scene-stealer in the form of Lil Rel Howard, better known as TSA Agent Rod from “Get Out!” Howard steals every scene he’s in just as he did in the latter, and just about every interaction he has with Michael and Mae had the audience and me in stitches. It’s really great to see him in more things.
Also, can I just say that’s it gratifying to see Rob Morgan get more work after largely being relegated to comedic cameo and barely recurring roles on Marvel’s Netflix shows and “Stranger Things?” There is some light comedy he pulls off really well while he finally has more of an opportunity to stretch his dramatic muscles. His performance is very soulful and moving, and I can safely say he’ll leave an impression on audiences.
Also backing this up is a graceful jazz and R&B score from Robert Glasper, mixed in with some really good licensed tracks. Glasper’s music knows when to rise and when to let the sexual tension simmer. As far as film music for 2020 is going, this is by far my favorite soundtrack of the ones I’ve heard.
I will say that one of the problems I had here was how it portrayed the relationship between Christine and Mae in flashbacks. Christine is supposed to be a neglectful mother, but aside from one very brief scene, it’s treated like a “tell, don’t show.” This wasn’t especially irritating, but the best movies know to “show, don’t tell” and I would have liked to maybe get a few more scenes between the two that showed Christine to be neglectful or at least more of a workaholic.
Another half-criticism is while some lame cliches like the “third act breakup” and misunderstanding do threaten to show up, the latter is thrown completely out the window and the former is kind of played with in a meaningfully intelligent way, leading to a rather mature ending.
That ending, while kind of lacking in steam, is pretty well handled and leaves enough hope and interest if Meghie and the crew want to come back to this couple in the future. A prospect I like, honestly.
“The Photograph” is an old-school romance drama in all the best ways. From two great leads dripping with chemistry to smooth writing and directing, this is a stellar addition to the romance genre and definitely one I’d watch again for further Valentine’s Days in the future.
Final rating: 4/5
Featured Illustration: Austin Banzon