Just in time for Valentine’s Day, filmmaker Stella Meghie offers up a cross-generational romance that imagines a pair of irrevocably linked relationships, both bolstered by stellar casting and the kind of chemistry woefully rare in studio features (which have long appeared to cast romantic leads through a random process that finds far more hits than misses). And yet the open-hearted drama, titled “The Photograph” but perhaps better referred to as “The Photographer” or even “The Letter,” can never quite bridge its individual stories, awkwardly shuffling between the pair and never giving either their full due. Starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield as a modern couple brought together by the forces of the past (the photograph, the photographer, the letter), Meghie’s film is also concerned with an ill-fated pair from the past, connected by a twist anyone will see coming from a mile away.
Meghie’s film, her fourth directorial outing and the third she’s written entirely on her own, opens in the past: with an introspective video interview that finds Christina (a wonderful Chanté Adams) unpacking some of her missteps in life. A talented photographer who left behind her small Louisiana hometown in favor of a career in New York City, present-day Christina is long gone by the time we meet her daughter Mae (Issa Rae), similarly career-driven and out of touch with her emotions (and wounded by the receipt of a pair of letters from her recently deceased mom, missives that reveal many long-held secrets). Back in Louisiana, journalist Mike (LaKeith Stanfield) goes hunting for a story in Christina’s birthplace, only to find a haunted Isaac (played by Rob Morgan and Y’lan Noel across different periods), still holding fast to both a mantel full of photographs and the woman who took them.
You can imagine where this all goes, but the obviousness of what happens in “The Photograph” isn’t nearly as confounding as some of the other choices it makes. It’s plain as day that Isaac and Christina had a great love story that went awry, and when Mike and Mae meet (ostensibly in service to a story Mike wants to write about Christina, a story that Mae has much to add to), there’s little doubt that they will pick up that same torch. And yet “The Photograph” opts to unspool a relatively simple conceit in convoluted ways that rob it of significant emotional power. Most telling: the film shows its most vibrant, sexy signs of life when Meghie leans into the obvious connections between the two love stories, from the inevitable shocker that brings all the characters together (one that will be clear to anyone within the film’s first five minutes) and scenes in which Mae and Mike unknowingly relive scenes from Christina and Isaac’s relationship.
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There are many joys to be found in the threads between its two romances, but the split between the segments distracts more than any other narrative choice in the film. Still worse, the wraparound story that brings Mae and Mike together never makes much sense — Mike “discovers” Christina’s life story and work while investigating the effects of Hurricane Katrina on her small hometown, though it’s clear she was a very successful photographer not in need of rescuing by a self-obsessed writer who uses his latest project as a means to hit on a pretty girl — and is routinely dropped as a plot point. (It must also be noted: Mike is a terrible journalist, the kind of character pulled out of a ’90s-era rom-com who makes his own hours, complains bitterly about his work, and then turns every story he writes into one that’s really about him. He is, of course, later rewarded with a snazzy new job.)
Rae’s disarmingly open face and expressive eyes form an effective counterbalance for Stanfield’s more forward performance as Mike, who is introduced as a cad and takes his sweet time proving himself to be much else. That the character is played by someone as charming as Stanfield helps sell some of Mike’s worst traits; another actor might have been unable to rescue Mike’s instant obsession with Mae from feeling both creepy and rooted in ulterior motives. Thankfully, the pair sizzle together, and their chemistry is strong enough to ice over thin plotting and awkward narrative jumps that might have been avoided had the film simply focused on their love story. Adams and Noel are similarly well-matched, and Meghie’s knack for romantic casting leads to a number of solid love scenes, genuinely sexy sequences that hinge on strong chemistry and even better directing.
Meghie’s eye for romance and its many complications is strong, though her grasp on how to turn those twists into more dramatic contortions isn’t the film’s strong suit. Supporting stars like Lil Rel Howery, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. offer enough levity that you’ll wonder why the film isn’t a rom-com (so will a subplot about a hurricane trapping Mae and Mike together), and a sequence in which Mae contends with Mike’s nosy nieces is hilarious to the point that it seems to be pulled from another, entirely different film (though one that fans of her comedic stylings would likely love; they’ll just have to sit tight for upcoming release “The Lovebirds,” which will more overtly tap into those skills).
At least the film proves to be immersive from other angles, with Meghie and her team showing real skill bringing ’80s Louisiana to life in ways that never feel cloying or over the top (good luck finding an unearned shoulder pad here) and offering Mae and Mike a slew of sexy locations for their burgeoning romance to unfold within. If only the story that surrounded it was as strong and well-crafted as the locales and people who populate it, “The Photograph” would be more than worthy of affection. As it stands, it just never quite develops into anything more.
Universal Pictures will release “The Photograph” in theaters on Friday, February 14.