Sultry music swells as the camera swoons over a young couple in a tender nighttime embrace. The 1950s residential New York City street is carefully rain-slicked and lined with shiny classic cars: an obvious stage set. Gene Kelly might just have swung on that lamppost; Doris Day might lean out of an upstairs window to sigh at a painted moon. But the canoodling stars of Eugene Ashe’s Sundance competition title “Sylvia’s Love” are black, which is among the sole indications that this weightlessly glossy yet undeniably charming romance is a product of the 21st century. Even so, were we to find out as the credits roll that the film had actually lain undiscovered in some studio vault for five decades, aside from mild surprise that it would make Tessa Thompson quite a bit older than previously suspected, it would actually explain a lot.
More even than Declan Quinn’s sumptuously old-school cinematography and the throwback styling and stock footage exteriors that deliberately mimic the Technicolor romances of old, it’s the fresh-faced naiveté of the storytelling that feels so anachronistic. For a multitude of reasons — the death of the studio system, the rise of the gritty indie, the unfashionableness of melodrama, the antiquarian sound of the term “women’s picture” — they don’t make ’em like this any more, innocent and escapist and scrubbed clean of contact with real grubby life. But then, given the poor history of black representation in the Hollywood movies of the Golden Age, “they” never really did, and perhaps this small act of retroactive redress is enough of a reason to make such a wildly old-fashioned, fantasy-bubble period romance.
Thompson, charismatic as ever, plays Sylvie, the strong-willed daughter of kindly music store owner Mr. Jay (Lance Reddick). At work in the store, she catches the eye of struggling (but crazy talented) jazz saxophonist Robert (a gorgeously sincere performance from Nnamdi Asomugha), who takes a job in the store just to be near her. Sylvie, however, is engaged to rich, conveniently absent Lacy (Alano Miller) which is the first of several not-terribly-insurmountable obstacles that the obviously predestined couple keep creating for themselves so that their love story, which Sylvie dreamily calls “extraordinary,” can hit a few speed bumps and we get to have a feature-length movie.
Sylvie is obsessed with television and wants to be a producer, a tricky ambition for an African American girl in the late 1950s, one that her father chuckles at incredulously but which actually ends up sailing pretty smoothly for her. Meanwhile Robert’s band acquires a vampish new manager (Jemima Kirke, inexpertly toggling a cigarette holder). She lands the band a gig in Paris at just the moment that Sylvie discovers she’s pregnant with Robert’s baby — information which, in one of those “only in the movies” contrivances, she decides to keep from him so he can fulfill his professional potential of becoming the next John Coltrane.
Five years later, Sylvie is married to Lacy, who is nobly raising her daughter as his own but who chafes against her dedication to her job producing a TV cooking show. Robert is a big success, and a chance encounter inevitably rekindles their extraordinary love. Then a bunch more stuff just sort of has to happen, including a few more acts of pointless self-sacrifice, before Fabrice Lecomte’s lush, appropriately jazz-inflected score can crescendo in tandem with the rising final crane shot and a grand “The End” can fade up.
“Sylvie’s Love” does not want for eye candy — Phoenix Mellow’s delicious costuming and Mayne Berke Thompson’s vintage production design see to that. Thompson’s hairstyles alone, from her Leslie Caron pixie cut to her hairband-embellished ’60s career-woman bob are worth the price of entry. But it’s a bit of a waste of its painstakingly re-created period that the story is so glib. The turbulent Civil Rights era is represented by a glancing mention of the March on Washington in a phone call; the everyday experience of racism is confined to a single dinner party scene; and the dawning women’s lib movement is covered off by a hasty shot of Sylvie reading “The Feminine Mystique.” Wasted, too, is the supporting cast, from Robert’s bandmates to Eva Longoria’s band-leader’s wife to Connie, (Raquel Horsford) — a sexpottish bottle blonde laughably ginned up to be Sylvie’s romantic rival. And the plot is a facile confluence of coincidence, typified by a sequence during which a character dies, an engagement is announced, a life-changing secret revealed, a promotion landed and the seeds of professional discord sown, all during a single New Year’s Eve.
Still, not every movie about the black experience has to detail realistic hardships, and if you’re looking for more texture and honesty, Barry Jenkins’ wonderful “If Beale Street Could Talk,” set in a similar time and place but with an unmistakably contemporary sensibility, is at the ready. By contrast, “Sylvie’s Love” feels like a work of alternate history, as though Ashe had clicked his heels three times on a studio soundstage in Burbank and wished away the past 50 years of Hollywood filmmaking — and God, Charles Mingus and Douglas Sirk were all listening and made his wish come true.