For a Valentine’s trip to the movies, you couldn’t wish for a hotter and more talented pair of lovers than Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield. He’s Mike, a New York journalist working for The Republic, an online publication that allows him the time and space and support to feel his way through stories (The Republic doesn’t exist, so don’t send in applications). She’s Mae, a curator at the Queens Museum who’s still smarting over her mother’s death from cancer, and adding bricks to the wall of suspicion she’s built around men. On their first date, the two talk music — not jazz, though the loose-limbed, jazz-inflected score by Robert Glasper provides a steady stream of cool that any movie would envy. Rap is Topic A for Mike and Mae. He vibes on Kendrick Lamar, which makes this Drake girl bristle (“Kendrick always makes me feel guilty”).
Just when you hope this banter will lead to a live-wire relationship, the plot intervenes. There’s a thinking in Hollywood that true love must always endure impediments, that conversation — even mixed with sex — makes audiences squirm. Has no one seen Richard Linklater’s classic Before trilogy (Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight)? If — there’s always an “if” — The Photograph had settled for watching these two supernovas spark, we might have had something to write a rave about. Instead, The Photograph comes down with a teary case of The Notebook, laying on flashbacks that yank us out of the present, where our stars live, and into a past riddled with sentimental clichés.
In the notebook that writer-director Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything) has compiled for The Photograph, it’s events going back to the 1980s that bring Mike and Mae together. He’s been in Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana, interviewing Isaac (the reliably superb Rob Morgan), a crab fisherman whose modest home contains a photograph — the photograph — he took of his lost love, Christina (the brilliant and heart-stopping Chanté Adams), a photographer who left him to pursue a career in the Big Apple. As the long arm of coincidence would have it, the recently deceased Christina is being honored by an art show in New York curated by none other than Mae, who has secrets of her own.
In lesser hands than Meghie’s, these plot contrivances would cause far more eye-rolling. Did I mention that the dead mom has left behind two letters containing information you can see coming from outer space? It helps to have comic relief, courtesy of the priceless Lil Rel Howery as Mike’s married older brother Kyle, a husband and father — Teyonah Parris is aces as his wife — with no patience for Mike’s reluctance to commit to Mae. With an extra convolution this movie did not need, Mike has been offered a new job in London, which would separate him from Mae, who must comment that “long-distance relationships never work.”
Still, if you can cut through the tangled weeds of this overcomplicated script, there are Stanfield and Rae to let you revel in a true romance that jumps the hurdles of tearjerking to arrive at something touchingly real. Stanfield (Knives Out, Sorry to Bother You) has sleepy-eyed sex appeal to spare and a flair for comic nuance that radiates charm. And Rae, the dynamite star of HBO’s Insecure who also shone brightly on the web series Awkward Black Girl, brings beauty and brash humor to a relationship that defuses soap-opera fantasy with a no-bull reality. Would it have helped if the film had not forced its two luminous leads to play second fiddle to a predictable backstory? That’s for sure. But thanks to the indisputable sizzle ignited by Stanfield and Rae, this sub-par romance earns a solid A in chemistry.