There’s something so comforting about walking into a theater and walking out of it two hours later with the exact same head on your shoulders. These films that deliberately avoid the destruction and reconstruction of the soul that comes from great art, instead focusing on a simple reiteration of what one comes to expect from the average night out at a multiplex. They’re the sort of movies that your parents and their friends who aren’t into movies look for when they ask for recommendations. It’s not even necessarily escapism, but rather contentment, offering something akin to looking up at the sun on a nice morning. You know it’s there, it’s always been there, but it warms you to stare up at the light for a moment. For an hour and forty-six minutes, The Photograph offers a wave of this feeling that never lets up. A step above Nicolas Sparks and a step below art, writer/director Stella Meghie’s film is a showcase of beautiful people falling in love, with just enough ideas and motifs to pad the runtime, even though the entire film can be sketched out after seeing the first five minutes.
Issa Rae stars as Mae, an art curator whose recently deceased mother was an aloof and mysterious photographer. When a reporter, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), prepares to write a story about Mae’s mother, the two single workaholics form a connection that breaks down both of their walls and teaches them how to love. For a romance film, there’s remarkably little complication; none of the miscommunication or false identity tropes that permeate the genre can be found here, and while it’s refreshing to see a romance film where every character behaves like a real adult, real adults are some of the least compelling people in the world (I am writing this review in a t-shirt with cartoon characters on it and I’m very interesting, so my point stands).
I’m still confused as to what sort of movie The Photograph is trying to be. Set in two different time periods, with Mae and Michael in 2019 as well as Mae’s mother in the 1980s, the film is handsomely put together, edited across time in a way that would make any Academy voter lose their mind, and scored to the ends of the earth. The craft on display here is honestly overbearing, diluting all the small moments and little joys that just come from the script and performances. Stanfield and Rae are great here, and their chemistry carries the film, but the pretense that the movie seems to have washes it all out. Overbearing music that would feel more at home over a scene in Titanic just doesn’t have the same weight, and it’s hard to be emotionally invested when it’s all so damned pleasant.
That said, Meghie’s directing has definitely improved from her 2017 YA adaptation Everything, Everything, and her ability to assemble a stellar cast here is jaw-dropping. In addition to the leads, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, Chelsea Peretti, Lil Rel Howery, Courtney B. Vance, and Rob Morgan round out the cast, all providing the right amount of half-hearted chuckles to keep their place as sounding off boards that will give one of the two lovers important advice on how to be in a relationship without becoming grating to watch.
A few hours and some reflection after the film’s close, this polaroid is already starting to fade. Aside from the odd orchestral tracks, nothing in the film is particularly egregious, it just seems relatively pointless. It’s a gentle, tame movie with little on its mind, and it’s proud of that fact. It’s sugar-free cotton candy for adults to enjoy while their kids are gorging themselves on the real stuff in the theater playing Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s less sweet, but you’re not as young as you once were, and you still want to partake, so you indulge in this alternative. You won’t get the sugar high or the calories, and ultimately it has the exact same effect as eating nothing at all, but it’s still cotton candy, and if you don’t think about it making contact with water and dissolving, there’s some joy to be found. I just wish there was any staying power to the film’s events; less a photograph and more of a Snapchat. After you see it, it’s gone, and you might as well have never seen it in the first place. But just because one snap is indistinguishable from the rest, it doesn’t mean you didn’t smile when you opened it. It just means the smile is one you’ve made before, and will make again.
C+ Review C+ chelsea peretti courtney b. vance everything everything issa rae jasmine cephas jones kelvin harrison jr. lakeith stanfield lil rel howery rob morgan sonic the hedgehog stella meghie the photograph titanic