‘The Photograph’ Captures Generations of Love Blossoming and Spreading Free

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Chanté Adams, Y’lan Noel, Rob Morgan, Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris, Courtney B. Vance, Chelsea Peretti, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Stella Meghie

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Sizzling Moments

Release Date: February 14, 2020

The ads for The Photograph have been giving off strong “Nicholas Sparks, but with black people” vibes. However, I had a hankering suspicion that it wouldn’t actually be as saccharine as that glossy presentation suggested. First and foremost, the two leads, Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, are not exactly for taking on such gloopy material. Surely their presence would ensure that things would end up a little more left-field than this genre typically goes. Indeed that has turned out to be the case, but to be fair to the marketing team, this is not an easy movie to advertise. It has a slow-burn meditative spirit (driven along by Robert Glasper’s jazzy piano score) that does not immediately grab you in the way that trailers are meant to in a couple of minutes. But if you simmer in it for a couple hours, your heart might just grow a few sizes.

Michael (Stanfield) is a reporter working on a story that happens to involve recently deceased photographer Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). He then finds himself smitten by Christina’s daughter Mae (Rae), who is working her way through the truth bombs that her mom has left her in a pair of letters, one addressed to Mae and one to Mae’s father. Meanwhile, writer-director Stella Meghie frequently takes us back to Christina’s young adulthood in small-town Louisiana where she is unable to reconcile a possible future with the man that she loves (Y’lan Noel) and her dreams of making it big in New York City. She tends to always choose her professional goals over her loved ones, and in a case of family history rhyming, Mae and Michael find themselves worried that they are going to do the same. That struggle to find the nerve to say what you know is in your heart is deeply felt in The Photograph.

I have noticed a lot of excitement around this movie about the potential to see black love that is not also about trauma on the big screen. And if that is what you are looking for, I suspect that you will be satisfied. The blackness in The Photograph is not meant to represent all blackness, as Michael and Mae’s story is by no means a microcosm of all people of color. They are two people who happen to be black and happen to be falling in love. The details are their own, while also being part of a continuum of their lineage. It is an openhearted, generous story that I think a lot of people are going to be happy to witness.

The Photograph is Recommended If You Like: Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball, A bottle of wine and a record player on a rainy night

Grade: 4 out of 5 Darkrooms

This Is a Movie Review: Stuck in a Teenage Girl’s Bedroom, ‘Everything, Everything’ Has a Teenage Heart and Soul

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Morgan Saylor

Director: Stella Meghie

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Artfully Shot Sickness and Tastefully Shot Teen Sensuality

Release Date: May 19, 2017

Everything, Everything is a teen romance fantasy in a vacuum. The good and bad thing about vacuums is that they keep everything out – in this case, both the distractions that can get in the way of a genuine connection but also the context and experiences that deepen that connection.

18-year-old Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg) has been housebound nearly her entire life, due to her Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a disorder that leaves her deathly vulnerable to all the infections of the outside world. She has managed to carve out a decently satisfying routine in her domestic prison: writing mini reviews of all the books she reads, assembling dioramas of the places she cannot visit, and having game/movie nights with her mom (phonetic Scrabble and Moonstruck are a couple of favorites). But when prototypically cute boy with a hardscrabble home life Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door, her desire to break free can no longer be so easily contained.

This is the type of movie in which a character 100% earnestly says, “I loved you before I knew you” (to which the response in real life should always be, “That is not how love works”). But when it comes to the outsize emotions of adolescence, such a sentiment is understandable and can often make for thrilling stories about first love. Everything, Everything wants to be that type of story, and the physical entrapment in its premise is a potent formula for a big tension release, but the trouble is, the chemistry between Stenberg and Robinson is supposed to be self-evident, but in fact it never really clicks.

The lack of passion is a shame, because the design around the lovers is striking. Their conversations are mostly through text or online messaging, but they are sometimes presented as taking place in life-size versions of Maddy’s dioramas – a lovingly designed diner or library occupied just by them, but in which they dance around each other’s orbit, never really in the same spot, representing both the effort to protect Maddy and their emotional distance. When the two are finally allowed to meet in person, their dialogue is accompanied by subtitles representing their inner thoughts (a la Annie Hall), which is insightful enough to make up for the lack of chemistry, but alas that technique lasts only that one scene.

Eventually Maddy decides that she simply must take the risk of leaving home, which ultimately leads to an alarming twist that re-contextualizes the entire film. Suddenly, Everything, Everything is filled with so much more depth than it has been letting on, but there is not enough running time left to fully grapple with all of the implications of this reveal. What at first appears to be (and in fact largely is) a shamelessly mushy love story transforms into an examination of grief and the lengths that people go to protect themselves. These are two sides of a coin that could very well complement each other, but it is hard to be satisfying when one is so much more heavily weighted than the other.

Everything, Everything is Recommended If You Like: The Space Between Us, The music of Ludwig Göransson

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Astronauts