Isaiah (Kofi Siriboe) and Stevie (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing) don’t meet cute in “Really Love.” They meet with understated beauty, at a time in their lives when ardor and connection will be tested by the dreams each has harbored for much of their lives. He’s a talented painter watching other art school classmates get representation and gallery shows. She’s in the last year of law school and sure to be courted by elite firms.
For her debut feature, director Angel Kristi Williams doesn’t make it easy on her protagonists. And her deliberateness of vision, trust in story and clear-eyed empathy suggest she’s a talent to keep track of. For their restrained yet smoldering performances, the two lead actors received a special jury acting prize at the 2020 SXSW film festival (where the film would have premiered, had COVID not intervened).
Stevie and Isaiah first connect at a gallery opening in front of a large painting of a woman. “Black people are extraordinary and normal at the same time,” Stevie says without looking at the stranger who stands next to her. “The kind of shit that keeps me up at night,” Isaiah replies. This authentic art appreciation as accidental flirtation is interrupted, but they’ll meet again soon enough. Their Black arts world has believable one-degree-of-separation qualities.
Michael Ealy portrays Yusef Davis, the slightly older, wiser artist who introduces Isaiah to formidable gallerist Chenai Hungwe (Uzo Aduba). Looking a little like Malcolm X, he preaches the importance of art to his younger friend over a game of chess. When he speaks of art, he means that insatiable, demanding calling that requires stamina and emotionally protective cloak that might look like arrogance to friends and families.
It’s tempting to name check “Love Jones” as this film’s antecedent. The two indie films share a celebratory vision of Black arts and Black lovers smitten by art and compelled by attraction. Or Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” and Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” for the spot-on attention to the early aches and hushed joys of a budding love affair. Comparison here is just a parlor game. What quietly transpires onscreen feels unique. Williams and co-writer Felicia Pride have written a quarrel that is bold, pitch perfect, and therefore sad and worrisome. Stevie and Isaiah say things to each other that aren’t easy to take back or come back from. The jury may be instructed to disregard those jabs but let’s be real.
The film unfolds in a changing Washington, D.C. At a mock law presentation, Stevie argues about fair housing laws. On a first meeting with Isaiah, Stevie’s father boasts about having bought the family home before young white professionals overran the neighborhood.
Blair Underwood portrays Stevie’s dad, who initially appears more open to his daughter’s new guy than mom — that is, until he learns that Isaiah has moved in with her. The look he gives Isaiah across the dinner table is a thunderclap and priceless. Stevie’s mom is fierce, knowing and hella stylish. Played with vigor by Suzzanne Douglas in one of her last roles, she brooks no sentimentality. Both parents make it clear that Stevie graduating from Georgetown Law or being courted by top-drawer law firms isn’t only on her. This household expects excellence. When Stevie’s offered a job at a top firm in Chicago, there’s no question what she’ll do — at least not for mom. As for Isaiah’s folks, they are not exactly supportive of his passion, failing to grasp the depth of his talent.
“Really Love” takes its art seriously. In a way, the film is a group show of Black artists. The portrait the two met in front of is called “Helena in Blue” by Ronald Jackson. The score is as textured and controlled as Isaiah’s paintings become as he makes his way toward getting his own solo show. It lilts with jazz brass and surprises with snatches of Go-Go music courtesy the artist Goldlink. Isaiah’s paintings are the beguiling work of Gerard Lovell. There’s a lot of love for artists and the meaning of art here. The visual palette Williams and cinematographer Shawn Peters create confirms that the director embraces moviemaking as an art.
In a pensive moment, Isaiah tells Stevie what he wants as an artist: “To express my ideas without having to explain them to anyone. Not making any sort of statement, just showing black people as normal and beautiful and everything else.” That is the golden key to the ambitions of this gem of a drama.