Big-screen romantic drama, like romantic comedy, needs a conflict. When two great-looking stars play characters who lock eyes and flirt and get closer and fall in love, the pull of that chemistry is so strong that if there isn’t something to keep them apart, you don’t have a movie — or, at least, that’s the theory. But in “The Photograph,” a love story that flows like a life-size swoon (it unfolds slowly, surely, riding cautious currents of hope and desire), Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), a feature writer for an online magazine called The Republic, and Mae (Issa Rae), a curator at the Queens Museum, come together and connect in a slow-groove way that’s so organic and appealing you can feel the film’s writer-director, Stella Meghie, not wanting to get in their way. She seems to be saying: Forget the noisy emotional clang of all that romantic conflict stuff — behold the drama of two people who chime in a world that keeps trying, and failing, to muck things up.
“The Photograph” has been timed for Valentine’s Day, which may sound like a big so what?, except that the movie isn’t the sort of cookie-cutter sugar wafer that tends to get released by studios on that holiday. It’s a looser, warmer, and more meditative romance, one that takes its time by giving its actors room to breathe.
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Lakeith Stanfield, from “Sorry to Bother You,” and Issa Rae, from HBO’s “Insecure,” create characters who know how to spar in a seductive way, as when they spend a portion of their first date comparing notes on Drake (she likes, he doesn’t) and Kendrick Lamar (he likes, she doesn’t). The tension between these two been-around-the-block lovebirds arises out of the fact that Michael carries himself like a player, so she doesn’t trust him, even though he’s completely sincere. He’s chivalrous — but the form that takes, and this is trés contemporary, is his willingness to accept her slings and arrows, letting them bounce right off him. And so she keeps slinging. Rae and Stanfield are sexy together, and though I bought her as an ardent curator more than I did him as an ambitious journalist (he’s not prickly enough), the two aren’t playing moony overgrown teenagers. They’re sophisticated adults on an amorous journey.
There’s a minor road block or two that Mae and Michael have to vault over, but “The Photograph” finds its spark of drama in the past — by counterpointing their love story with flashbacks to Mae’s mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), who grew up in rural Louisiana and fell for a doting bearded fisherman, Isaac (Y’lan Noel), only to abandon him because she was intent on moving to New York to make it as a photographer.
She did, and succeeded. The film captures the poignance of a love doomed not by betrayal but by aspiration and circumstance — a situation very much like life, though not so much like a movie. Isaac was a guy so parochial, so content in his role as a fisherman, that he didn’t even like to venture into New Orleans. Whereas Christina, coming of age in the 1980s, got possessed by the cosmopolitan dream of becoming an artist. That may sound schematic, but Chanté Adams brings Christina the presence — the haunted incandescence — of a major actress. Adams played the rapper Roxanne Shante in the inspired hip-hop biopic “Roxanne Roxanne” (2017), and in “The Photograph” she gives an extraordinarily fresh performance, letting torn feelings seep through her skin. Her Christina, jumping onto a Greyhound bus, ditches Isaac and escapes Louisiana, never looking back, even when fate conspires for her to do so. She’s living for herself, and Adams catches the glory, and sadness, of that.
“The Photograph,” which jumps between the two eras, paralleling mother and daughter, begins just after Christina has died (from cancer). Michael is writing a profile of her, and Mae is looking at her mother’s life, seeing if it rhymes with her own — and whether she wants it to. There are lively and funny scenes with Lil Rel Howery as Michael’s bougie Brooklyn brother, an irascible family man who testifies, in his way, to where all this romantic stuff leads: a place less glamorous but more real. And there’s a career twist, in the last act, that arrives a bit too suddenly. “The Photograph” is a minor romantic diversion, yet there’s authentic feeling in it. Stella Meghie stages it with an exploratory spirit and just enough craft to mirror the love jones of almost anyone who sees it.