Romantic dramas are not my cup of tea. I’ve seen my fair share and many of them are filled with schmaltzy, unrealistic representations of romance and are built to be nothing more than pandering date night movies. Needless to say, I skip them most times especially considering I have no significant other to give me reason to see them. But there’s been a lot of talk about one new romance film that debuted for Valentine’s Day weekend, “The Photograph”. Directed by Stella Maghie and starring Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae, “The Photograph” explores the relationship formed between an aspiring journalist and the daughter of a recently deceased famous photographer he is profiling. Meanwhile the mother’s story is explored through flashbacks. I was fully prepared to skip this film but many different reviews, including one a Keith & the Movies, had me convinced to give it a chance. Was it worth it? Let’s find out in my review of “The Photograph”.
“The Photograph” focuses on Lakeith Stanfield’s aspiring journalist Michael who falls for Issa Rae’s Mae, the daughter of a photographer named Christina who Michael is writing a feature about. Much of the movie focuses more squarely on Mae’s insecurities which somewhat mirror her own mother’s struggles with love. Christina walked away from her life to focus on a brighter future thus leaving love behind and now Mae has a chance to explore love with Michael but her insecurities also keep her from taking things too far as well. Michael has his own insecurities having been unable to maintain stable romantic relationships and feelings tapped in his simple existence seeking a way out. These two perspectives, one all-to comfortable where she is and the other wanting nothing more than to escape, clash as they become smitten with each other. On the surface this seems like a pretty basic romantic drama setup, but what might surprise you is how grounded and effective this story ends up being in spite of hitting most of the romantic cliché must-haves.
Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Raw sport amazing chemistry in this movie making their romance feel very believable, but also delightfully awkward. Unlike many romantic dramas where the two lovers meet and it seems like they’ve known each other forever we see these two get to know each other in a way that captures the pure awkwardness of falling in love. Every scene drips with a mix of caution and sexual tension. It seems like these two genuinely like each other but are fearful of what such a strong bond might mean to them. I think what also helps make it work, and I’m far from the first person to say this, is how director Stella Maghie allows her stars to do what they need to do. There’s no overacting, no rushing through scenes. We see this bond form more naturally, even if it still forms quite a bit faster than would be the case in real life, and the character’s are given time to show those subtle hesitations and pull off small one-liners that make interpersonal communication and courtship such a unique experience. I truly felt like I was watching two people bond and fall in love and I think the way it’s approached allows viewers an opportunity to appreciate the simple idea of a blooming romance without overshadowing it with over the top dramatic flair.
The way the film is shot is also quite beautiful. “The Photograph” proved to be a rare situation where I was watching it after reading reviews as I usually get to review movies before I read what others have to say. Thus when I heard compliments about the visuals and cinematography I found myself paying even more attention to how the movie looked and it really is quite appealing. The cinematography is simple but gripping and the camera movements and angles are handled with an interesting delicacy. The camerawork doesn’t dominate any scene or control the moment, but rather it compliments it. Instead of feeling like we’re being told how to interpret or react to a scene it feels like we’re getting insight into private and intimate moments beautifully captured like you would see in, well, a photograph where much of the subtlety allows us our own interpretation of what’s going on and how the two main characters see each other. Maybe that’s the beauty of this film’s title. In the surface it could reference the photographs that provide an in for the flashbacks to enter the picture, but on the other hand this movie is built to capture a thousand little moments like a series of pictures doing what most great films should do by giving us a glimpse into the human experience.
Speaking of the flashbacks, there’s a second half of this film which sees Mae reading different parts of a final letter from her mother at different stages of her budding romance, allowing Christina’s story to be told as her daughter discovers the struggles of her mother’s life. The rocky relationship between mother and child are toned down in favor of more universal life lessons but the complexities are still there with Christina representing a flawed human being who makes decisions she regrets but stands by them and the letters being her opportunity to try and inspire Mae to be a better person. The photographs serve as a reminder to Mae that while her mother didn’t do everything right she still cherished all those little moments that made the life she chose worth living. One specific photograph of Christina, one of the few she allowed someone to take of herself, represents the final moment before she willingly made decisions she couldn’t take back. It wasn’t lost on me why this would be the most prominent photo she leaves for Mae. It’s a way of telling her that when this moment comes up in her life, a moment where she needs to make a choice of direction, to make sure she is okay with what happens next. This secondary story not only serves to provide important context to the main narrative but also adds a good amount of depth and theming to a film that could have easily been an overly-simple love story.
“The Photograph” was definitely worth the watch and I’m glad I gave it a chance. While it still has room for improvement because it is solidly built on the same clichés as countless romantic drama’s before it, it does so much right that it rises above that familiarity to stand out from the crowd. Visually engaging and well controlled in its interpretation of a budding romance with talented actors and actresses on board to bring it all to life, “The Photograph” offers everything one could want from a charming Hollywood-style love story while living up to its name by capturing thousands of small moments necessary to depict a believable romance that are often lost in inferior genre pieces. This is big-screen romantic drama done right and if more films were like this I probably wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the genre every time a new love story comes around.