When reporter Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) is sent to interview Isaac, a small-town fisherman, he becomes entranced by a picture of the man's long-lost love and decides to track her down. She turns out to be Christina Eames, a recently-deceased photographer whose daughter Mae (Issa Rae) is still processing her mother's death. Sparks fly between Michael and Mae, and the film cuts between their burgeoning romance in the present day, and Christina's history with Isaac in the '80s, exploring the choices each couple makes about their respective relationships.
Writer/director Stella Meghie folds these dual narratives together pretty pleasantly. The scenes in which we see both couples, across generations, go to the same jazz club in New Orleans for a night of drinking, dancing and dreaming, have a charming energy of fated, romantic destiny. The film is technically well-shot with a light, upbeat score, and both of the lead couples have great chemistry. Lakeith Stanfield is one of the most versatile actors working today and his scenes with co-star Issa Rae are pitch-perfect, showing he can deliver as a romantic lead, too.
It is something of a shame, though, to see two such talented comedic performers, known for breaking out in HBO shows ‘Atlanta’ and ‘Insecure’, playing it completely straight, with material that is, despite their best efforts, a little dull. In its better moments, the film is reminiscent of the work of Barry Jenkins, but even his mood pieces, with their quietly-radical representations of happy couples of colour, are generally contextualised with something with a bit more thematic heft than we see in ‘The Photograph’: be it a coming-of-age story about maturing sexuality, as in ‘Moonlight’, or the injustice of institutional racism in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’
By comparison, ‘The Photograph’ underwhelms with the one dramatic development , which is predictable from the outset, and plays out with little real consequence. Furthermore, the film is primarily a character study where three out of the four lead characters are not very interesting people, or at least, not developed in a way that makes them interesting. Christina, who has talent and ambition and does seem genuinely conflicted between staying comfortable in her relationship and being successful alone in New York, is probably the most intriguing character - and she's dead in the present day narrative.
It also feels as if Mae should have been more of a lead than Stanfield’s Michael, given the details that are revealed about her family, but her characterisation and narrative arc is so slight, so dependent on the actions of other people, that she’s left with little else to do but react. She does this wonderfully, but she deserves more. (Her line that Kendrick Lamar makes her feel guilty is the film’s best, if not only, joke.)
Similarly, the stakes are so low as to be non-existent, with the drama essentially hinging on whether or not Michael and Mae will repeat the mistakes of the past, or learn from them to build a better future together… I think you get the picture.
Much like the titular image, 'The Photograph' is stylish, charming and romantic, despite being focused on one-dimensional characters and, simply, being a little thin.