Written and Directed by Stella Meghie | 106 min | Netflix
Michael (LaKeith Stanfield, everywhere these days) is a writer for a New York-based magazine on assignment in Louisiana to do a story on a fisherman, Isaac (Rob Morgan), and the impact of the BP oil spill. Michael hears a little about an old love of Isaac’s, from 30 years before, and spies a couple of her photographs. Her name was Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). She moved to New York in the 1980s, ending the relationship with Isaac.
Back in Manhattan. Michael is curious about this woman—maybe because he wants to use the photo in the article, or maybe because the connection could inform his story. He has an intern (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) track her down. She’s recently passed away, but Michael meets her daughter, Mae (Issa Rae), a curator at the Queens Museum, and they spark.
Stella Meghie’s gorgeously shot, evocative romantic drama is a warm and pleasant surprise in the wintry grip of a Canadian February, and absolutely works as a date movie even though we’re a little beyond Valentine’s Day.
Out of the blocks it threatens to be mystery, or a bit of a thriller as Michael researches his story, but the movie is much more concerned with the human heat than his writing. It flashes back to Louisiana in the 1980s where Christina has a complicated relationship with her mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake). She falls for young Isaac (Y’lan Noel), just as she’s making the decision to move to New York to pursue her dream of being a photographer.
In the present day, Michael is considering taking a job in London for the Associated Press, partly at the prodding of his family-man brother, Kyle (Lil Rel Howery, whose presence makes this a Get Out reunion with Stanfield), but that’s despite the fact he’s clearly falling for Mae.
The parallel storylines allow Mae the chance to examine the choices her mother made, and whether she’s prepared to do the same thing in a very similar situation—the resonance of generational legacy carries at least as much weight here as the parallel love affairs.
The film steadfastly refuses to dip into genre-testing stakes, and the pace is occasionally woozy, but the cast’s on-the-money performances along with the picture’s irrefutable sense of style resonates. Stanfield is the shining star here, with what must now be called a movie-star charisma, and he and Issa Rae have chemistry to spare. She underplays Mae to where she’s occasionally in danger of being too opaque in her emotional journey, but the camera loves her anyway and the audience ends up doing the same.
Meghie and her DP, Mark Schwartzbard, consistently shoot the actors in the most flattering light, with hair and wardrobe working overtime: these people look good. Then there’s the score from Robert Glasper, a lot of smooth piano jazz and R&B to wrap us up like a blanket—a little Al Green to foreshadow a love scene, and some tasty ’80s jams when we need a reminder of the flashback.
Add to that more than a little New York home and apartment porn, and The Photograph captures something special.