The Photograph movie review: love as a balancing act

part of my Directed by Women series
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The Photograph green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

It’s meet-melancholy in an elegant, female-gazey romantic drama audaciously mingling past and present. A swanky celebration of confident, complex women and the bittersweetness of adult relationships.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Forget meet-cute. It’s meet-melancholy for New York museum curator Mae (Issa Rae: Little) and magazine writer Michael (LaKeith Stanfield [Knives Out], a particular standout here, wonderfully endearing in a new-to-him role as a romantic lead) when an old photograph — old as in *gulp* from the 1980s — brings them together. It’s part of a feature Michael is researching, about how hurricanes and oil spills have impacted a New Orleans community, during the course of which he stumbles across the mysterious story of Mae’s recently deceased photographer mother, Christina (a steely Chanté Adams in flashbacks) — who escaped to NYC and a celebrated career in the arts — and her connection to Isaac (Rob Morgan [Just Mercy] today; Y’lan Noel [The First Purge] in the 80s), a fisherman content with a simple life.

Writer-director Stella Meghie pulls off an audacious intertwining of the past and present in an effortlessly smooth celebration of confident, complex black women: mother and daughter face similar emotional struggles as they struggle to overcome the limitations of what they learned about love and ambition as children, and as they contemplate the men before them and the vocations they’ve embraced. Is there any room in their lives for passion, or is that too much of a distraction? (The sex scenes, while fairly tame, are — hooray! — decidedly female-gazey.)

The Photograph Y'lan Noel Chanté Adams
Turns out a darkroom is a good place for a little nookie…

Mark Schwartzbard’s luscious cinematography and Robert Glasper’s (Miles Ahead) jazzy score infuse a swanky style to the elegant, pleasingly entangled drama, amplifying the charming chemistry between Rae and Stanfield and underscoring the bittersweetness of grownup relationships, with all their balancing acts: between work and family, between finding the courage to be vulnerable and the strength to know what you want and need out of your life. The Photograph is a refreshing adult take on a genre that all too often lately feels more like adolescent pandering, and finds that delicate balance between the fantasy of romance and the everyday reality in which it exists. If we can make it work for ourselves.

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