Written and Directed by: Stella Meghie
Starring: Issa Rae, LaKeith Stanfield, Chelsea Peretti, Kelvin Harrison, Jr, Chante Adams, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance
Nothing says ‘love’ more prolificly than “life finds a way.”
Perhaps that’s the clichéd romantic coming out to play, but it is the most apt way to describe Stella Meghie’s romantic “The Photograph,” opening in theatres just in time for the Valentine’s weekend.
There’s certainly nothing cliché about the way Meghie’s story unfolds as we meet Mae Morton (Issa Rae), a successful New York artist. Her mom, Christina Eames (Chante Adams) recently passed unexpectedly leaving Mae with a lot of unanswered questions. Meghie opens the film with a video interview with Eames as a young lady, presenting her at her most vulnerable and serves as an intriguing hook to not only her own story as a successful photographer, but also presents answers to some of Mae’s unasked questions.
Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) is a successful journalist tasked with tracking down the Eames’s history, ultimately bringing he and Mae together.
Meghie puts that romance front and center, serving as the centerpiece of a time-shifting story. Mark Schwarztbard’s cinematography captures the the rich look and feel of the modern times set in New York City with shades of deep browns and amber lighting in a stark contrast to the poverty stricken, brightly lit rural Louisiana setting we find young Christina in.
It is in Louisiana where we find a good deal out about Eames, from her poor, single mother, Violet (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and her no nonsense approach to raising her adult daughter to Christina’s secret relationship with Isaac Jefferson (Y’lan Noel). It is her desire for more that eventually leads her to New York in the late 1980’s.
Elements of the story repeat themselves as a way of reminding us of the cyclical nature of life, its ebbs and flows. Mae is stronger than her mother before her. As a part of that journey, she needs to grow into a more confident woman and Issa Rae’s performance is a testament to that.
Meghie’s story calls for a special kind of relationship, an honest and truthful relationship with Michael for Mae to see beyond her own world. In any other actor’s hands, this would feel less honest than it does in LaKeith Stanfield’s hands. While the intent is strong and purposeful, Meghie has to restate the theme multiple times rendering it less effective than if it was simply a product of the shifting of the story.
The net effect is a film that seems far longer than it should be, but it is no less captivating to see history repeat itself: life does indeed find a way.
Yet the modern Mae still struggles with accepting Michael. Michael is not as honest with himself as he thinks he is, again these attributes are a result of strong performances.
The beauty in “The Photograph,” beyond the performances and the central story are the supporting cast.
Meghie is a very generous writer and director by including her supporting cast in as much of the film as she can get them into, especially Rob Morgan as the adult Isaac Jefferson (yes, the crab sounds good) and Courtney B. Vance as Louis Morton, who has a smaller but no less pivotal role. They are, along with Kelvin Harrison Jr and Chelsea Peretti, the glue that binds Mae and Michael’s relationship.
Robert Glasper’s jazzy, soulful music inspires a sense of adventure in discovering new romance and had feet tapping in the aisles more than once.
“The Photograph” fades from it’s constant overuse of idiosyncrasies between mother and daugher, but Stella Meghie’s eye for a good, honest and genuine romance, and a strong technical eye for framing the story in just the right way is just what the doctor ordered for this clichéd critic.
PG-13, 106 minutes, A Universal Pictures Release