There’s a casual charm and sophistication to “The Photograph” that harks back to an earlier era in film romance.
The locations are striking, the characters upwardly-mobile and cultured. She’s a curator at the Queens Museum, daughter of a photographer-artist, he’s a treasured reporter at a national magazine. They dress the part, live well and debate music, when they’re not getting personal. The love affair gives away its chemistry through eye contact — wide-eyed stares — but the lovers never let us forget this is a meeting of minds.
“I don’t want to say the same thing I’ve said to another woman.”
“I broke up with my last boyfriend when he proposed.”
Writer-director Stella Meghie (“The Weekend”) lets her camera lose itself in the devouring eyes of Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield. She loses herself in those awkwardly-long close-ups, so much so that never have to wonder why this serene, sexy romance starts to drag. And drag.
But it’s cute, and a decent story and a couple of dreamy performances put it over.
Michael is in Louisiana, interviewing a local waterman (Rob Morgan) about the impact the BP oil spill and hurricanes have had on his work, when he sees the photograph. It was Isaac’s long lost great love. She was a photographer, and they lost touch “after she took off…or I let her leave.”
Something about the way he pauses and his eyes drift makes Michael shift the focus of the interview. And when he gets back to New York, he digs into this Christina Eames. And that’s how he meets Mae (Rae), the photographer’s daughter.
Flashbacks show us the gentle struggle between young Christina (Chanté Adams) and young Isaac (Y’Lan Noel). He’s settling down, she’s casting her eyes where they need to go if she wants to make it as an artist.
In the present day, Michael shyly only-not-really asks the woman he’s interviewing about her just-died mother out.
Smooth. And unprofessional. But it’s a movie, right?
The two romances are developed in roughly parallel sequences — Christina longing to break out of her bubble, pushed out by her single-mom, Mae and Micheal facing buppy versions of the same predicament, a job that might break this promising thing up before it starts.
The little comedy that’s here stands out because of the dreamy, mooning nature of the romance. Lil Rel Howrey plays Michael’s brother, a middle class married man who pokes his ladies’ man brother in the ribs every chance he gets (and is the only character in the movie to curse). The biggest laugh comes from one of brother Carl’s tween daughters, who spills the beans with just a slack-jawed look when quizzed about Michael by Mae.
Courtney B. Vance plays Mae’s fatherly father, sage advice about her “just a woman, with flaws” mother.
Meghie gives the film a feminine perspective that goes beyond the “let’s not rush things” pace of the picture. Conversations turn intimate in an abrupt flash, brothers and girlfriends from work over-share.
None of that stops the movie cold, but that lack of pacing robs it of urgency and heat.
A tiny quibble — the “talented” art photographer’s photography is flatly-lit, staged filler, with all the photos sampled looking as if they were shot in a day or two.
The silky jazz and R & B soundtrack weaves a spell and builds a mood that sustains
But in the end, it’s up to Rae (“Insecure”), at her most glamorous, and Stanfield (“Knives Out”) at his most romantic to put this over. And as they do, “The Photograph” develops into something rare in the movies this and most Valentine’s Days — a romance that feels romantic.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality and brief strong language
Cast: Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howrey, Chanté Adams, Courtney B. Vance and Y’lan Noel.
Credits: Written and directed by Stella Meghie. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:46