Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield look at their romance through the lens of the past in Stella Meghie’s sumptuous drama.
More than any other medium, photography is best at hiding its artifice. The camera lens purports objectivity, that the truth is there on film. Hiding behind the image are the choices made by the photographer: the subject, the framing, the lighting. Despite the superficial appearance of objective reality, a photo is just as constructed as any other type of art. Writer-director Stella Meghie uses the depths a picture can hide as a starting-off point for her latest picture, The Photograph.
During an interview with Isaac (Rob Morgan), a fisherman whose livelihood was destroyed by the BP oil spill, young journalist Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) is entranced by a mysterious photograph of Christine, a woman from Isaac’s past. When Isaac informs Michael that Christine moved to New York and became a famous photographer, he decides to seek her out. Unfortunately, Christine recently passed away, but when he meets with her daughter Mae (Issa Rae, Insecure), the two have an instant connection. The pair begin to form a romantic relationship, despite the misgivings of prior failed relationships and the prospect of Michael getting a new job in London.
Interwoven with Mae and Michael’s story are flashbacks to the 1980s, exploring the relationship between the younger Isaac (Y’lan Noel, Insecure) and Christine (Chanté Adams) as they court each other in Louisiana. Their relationship is intense, but like Michael and Mae, there are splits in ambition that just can’t make it work.
What’s most interesting in the primary story between Michael and Mae is the way it manages to avoid so many romantic clichés, despite its standard romantic plot. They’re a completely believable couple, and share an endearingly awkward repartee, similar to what made Rae so endearing in Insecure. Likewise, their hesitation to enter into a relationship makes sense: both are in an emotionally vulnerable place and set to experience major life changes.
It’s a good thing that the two characters and actors work so well off each other, as The Photograph’s A-story is far more character study than conflict. Isaac and Christine’s relationship, on the other hand, has a higher set of stakes and tension, even though the audience knows the outcome from the start. We see the pair move closer together, all while their lives grow further apart.
Despite the fact that both Michael and Mae are great characters who you root to end up together, in the end, they feel hollow compared to Isaac and Christine. When you strip down everything, Michael and Mae are just a fantasy: their romance is pre-ordained, they live glamorous lives in gorgeous apartments, they have exciting, creative careers. Her mother and Isaac didn’t have that luxury, their poverty-stricken lives contrasted sharply with the high-ceiling windowed apartments of modern-day New York. It’s an interesting wrinkle to explore the ways in which class and status affect the fates of these two couples; the wealthy Manhattanites have a much smoother time than the stark realities Isaac and Christine face.
It manages to avoid so many romantic clichés, despite its standard romantic plot.
Mark Schwartzbard’s cinematography is laidback and effortlessly cool; the New York scenes are shot in perpetual golden hour, with warm hues washing over our characters. Compare that to the film’s treatment of Louisiana — while romantic scenes between Christine and Isaac are shot with the same tenderness and idealized lighting (laying together on a boat at dusk, kissing in the red light of a lightroom), their liaisons are always followed by the revealing harsh light of reality. This sharp contrast between lighting drives home that their love is an oasis, not a home; a shelter that they will have to leave.
The Photograph is a romance movie for both people who love romance movies, and for people who don’t. Meghie deftly balances a crowd-pleasing romance with a subtle critique of the genre, peeking behind the triteness of the typical love story for something more deeply rooted in class and tragedy. In contrasting both romances across time and economics, Meghie’s screenplay satisfies the audience’s wish-fulfillment while exposing that fulfillment as a fairy tale. It helps that Rae and Stanfield (not to mention Noel and Adams) are such engaging screen presences, elevating what could have been a trite romance with some real heat.
Much like the subjectivity of a photograph, you can take from Meghie’s film what you want: it can be either an uplifting story of love overcoming all odds or a sobering tragedy about the way class and poverty can even impact who we end up with.
The Photograph snaps a picture of lost love in theaters on February 14th.