February is the perfect month for a film centered on romance. It’s even better if the film opens Valentine’s Day weekend. Every year there’s a film that opens around this time and this year’s offering is The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie.
At one point in the film, Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) plays For the Good Times by Al Green on a record player. These lyrics echo through Mae’s (Issa Rae) apartment:
Don’t’ look so sad
I know it’s over
But life goes on
And this world
Keeps on turning
Let’s just be glad
We have this time
To spend together oh
There is no need
To watch the bridges
That we’re burning hey oh
This song isn’t a reflection of the current situation Michel and Mae find themselves in, but a description of Mae’s mother’s relationship with a man named Isaac.
The Photograph follows Michael, a reporter for The Republic. He interviews an older man named Isaac (Robert Morgan) for a story he’s working on. Isaac shows him a photograph of a woman that leads to a serendipitous meeting with Mae, the daughter of the woman in the photograph. While Michel and Mae are getting to know each other, Mae is reading letters from her recently deceased mother, Christina (Chante Adams). The letters reveal a lot about Christina’s past and her relationship with a young Isaac (Y’lan Noel) in Louisiana during the 80’s
The film switches from past to present as the story follows Michael and Mae’s new found love and Christina and Isaac’s relationship in the 80s.
The film is part romantic drama and part romantic comedy (thanks to Lil Rel and Calvin Harrison Jr.). The heart of the film is everything in the 80s with Christina and Isaac. Adams and Noel have incredible onscreen chemistry. Every flashback scene feels like the movie you should be watching. The love between the two of them is strong and because older Isaac speaks about missing out on Christina’s love, the fate of their relationship is already known.
When the film jumps back to the present, Michael and Mae are in a relationship after 48 hours of knowing each other’s names. To be fair, Michael and Mare in a romantic comedy. Michael has the job with the quirky co-workers. He’s got the funny brother (played by Lil Rel) and a fuzzy past relationship. Mae has the spacious New York place and we never see her actually working. These are tropes consistent in most rom-coms. However, Christina and Isaac are in the romantic drama about a young couple trying to figure it out and woman that wants more for her life than small town living.
Michael and Mae’s chemistry is best when they’re joking back-and-forth or during the first date conversation about their favorite rappers. The two actors are in their element and so good in those scenes. When the two are romantic, it feels flat. There’s something missing between Rae and Stanfield that makes it hard to believe them as a couple. Their lack of chemistry is more glaring after the flashback scenes when you two actors that look in love, for real.
Despite the chemistry issues, The Photograph works as a film about love and the things we are willing to do for it. Both love stories help emphasize that love is a verb. Love isn’t something you let happen or something that randomly happens to you if you’re lucky. You don’t spin a roulette wheel and hope you land on love. If you find love, you actively pursue it. In both stories, the characters are running to or away from love. The characters that didn’t act are the ones living in regret for what could’ve been.
The third act is so touching and sweet, it really saves the film. As things are revealed in the past, things in the present start to make more sense. There are a few honest conversations about love that help elevate the film to get audiences to a beautiful ending that has a pretty great pay-off at the end.
The Photograph is a wonderful love story. The present story never quite finds its footing until the third act, but the past story is a beautiful story about young love that holds the film together. Chante Adams gives a breakout performance and Y’lan Noel reminds everyone he should be a leading man.