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film review

LaKeith Stanfield, left, and Issa Rae star in Stella Meghie's The Photograph.Emily Aragones/Universal Picture/Universal Pictures

  • The Photograph
  • Written and directed by Stella Meghie
  • Starring Issa Rae, LaKeith Stanfield, Chante Adams, Rob Morgan and Lil Rel Howery
  • Classification PG; 106 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

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 camera has its own affair with their silky skin, their expressive eyes, their jewel-toned dream wardrobes. Her story has them inch-inch-inch toward love under velvety night skies to the slow pulse of a jazz score. I, for one, am all here for it.

Your weekend movie guide: Romance abounds with Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Photograph. And then there’s Sonic the Hedgehog

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. (Think Carrie Mae Weems and her Kitchen Table series.)

Issa Rae, creator and star of HBO's Insecure, has a gift for masking vulnerability with humour.Sabrina Lantos/Universal Picture/Universal Pictures

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), Love Jones (1997, with Nia Long), Love and Basketball (2000, with Omar Epps).

In addition to her features, Meghie has become a go-to director for television series, including The First Wives Club, Grown-ish and Rae’s HBO show, Insecure. Meghie and Rae hit it off there, and Rae was the first person to whom Meghie sent The Photograph script. 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 romance-movie trope, the confidante 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. Stanfield has impressive range, from Get Out to Knives Out, Atlanta to Uncut Gems, but he was also born to play romantic heroes. He could easily be the next Denzel Washington or Brad Pitt.

Stanfield plays Michael Block, whose married older brother Kyle, played by Lil Rel Howery, acts as both confidante and comic relief.Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures

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.) And if she likes an image or a setting (Christina’s darkroom, the most perfect nightclub in New Orleans), she’ll linger there.

Romances that last have their signature lines – “You had me at hello,” “I just wanted one more look at you” – and Meghie delivers a few. “I’m wondering if it’s too early to kiss you,” Michael says to Mae, leaning across an emerald leather restaurant booth. “It wasn’t too early,” she eventually says. Later he asks, “You look like you’re praying – what would you pray for?” At her reply – “Will power” – my preview audience sighed audibly.

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 convince 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 across Canada on Feb. 14