In ‘The Photograph,’ an old picture sets in motion a romance between a photographer’s grieving daughter (Issa Rae) and a journalist (LaKeith Stanfield).
First off, love stories don’t come more contrived than the one in “The Photograph.” LaKeith Stanfield is a journalist stumbling upon an old black-and-white snapshot while working on an assignment leading him right into the heart of Issa Rae. She’s Mae, a fashionable Manhattan art curator exploring the early life of her recently deceased mother. It’s not picture-perfect, but Stanfield and Rae are so darn cute together you can’t help being smitten.
The story oscillates between dueling narratives showing how the past informs the present. In one string, writer-director Stella Meghie steps back 30 years to relay Christina’s (Chante Adams) tough decision to ditch her man (Y’Lan Noel), hop on the next bus out of backwater Louisiana to New York, then working her butt off to become a famous photographer. It comes with a cost, of course. “I wish I was as good at love as I was at working,” Christina says in a video within the movie.
The other storyline starts with Mae discovering a letter in Christina’s safe, setting the daughter on an emotional journey to understand her mom’s motivations, a situation that brings Stanfield’s newly single Mike into her orbit. Romantic dramas only work if there’s tangible chemistry between the leads, and with these two sparks fly from the first frame to the first kiss.
Meghie kicks the tires on heavy themes: grief, parental love, lost love, children not privy to who their parents really are . . . It’s enough to fill three movies. Sometimes that serious tone suffocates the romance, so much so that it feels like two movies spliced together. Indeed, for a film that’s trying to sweep us off our feet, too much of Meghie’s script is spent in plodding exposition.
Along the way, gifted comedian Lil Rel Howery, Stanfield’s “Get Out” co-star, infuses the film with a natural – and essential - levity as Mike’s married brother. And old pros Rob Morgan (“Just Mercy”) and Courtney B. Vance (“Ben is Back”) lend gravitas in supporting roles.
For her part, Rae is radiant, but she’s definitely a stronger comedic actress (“Little,” HBO’s “Insincere”), causing Mae’s two-dimensionality to play against her strengths. On the other hand, Stanfield, whose star has risen immensely with roles in “Get Out,” “Knives Out,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Uncut Gems,” carries the film with his charm and knack for effortlessly switching between comedy and drama. When he purrs the line “Is it too early in the night to kiss you?” the audience swoons. Ditto for some stormy-weather lovin’ set to Al Green slow jams. Yup, “The Photograph” is a Stanfield state of mind.