The Photograph (2020) Review
A SINCERE YET UNEVEN
Tales of romance are truly are a “dime a dozen” within the various narratives of storytelling. Cinematic representation of such constructs has always garnered appeal with the idea of love or rather the idea of finding love in another person has been the quintessential fundamental of storytelling. While some narratives of such romances have been rather straightforward, other stories have utilized heavier dramatics aspects and nuances to make their theatrical feature film more dynamic and entertaining for such a presentation; boasting major tragic events, cultural divisions, society hierarchy, and family troubles in such cases. Because of this, romance movies have appeared in a wide variety of genres, including but limited to dramas (both period pieces and contemporary) and comedies (mostly rom-coms) as well as blending into others (i.e. action, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc.) in minor subplots. Now, Universal Pictures and director Stella Meghie present the newest romance story with the movie The Photograph. Does this movie prove its cinematic undertaking with a affectionate love story or is too generic and uneven to fully invest into these two lovers?
Christina Eames (Chante Adams), a once respectable photographer, has recently passed away, exposing a hidden life secret for her daughter, Mae (Issa Rae) to sort through and come to terms with. Leaving a note behind for her child to tread, Christina hopes to explain the complexity hidden part of her life choices with the intent of letting her daughter to understand the mystery surrounding her mother’s clouded past. Meanwhile, Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) is a talented journalist working for a newspaper, assigned to cover Christina’s death, which requires extensive research on such a project. His inevitable investigating leads him to Mae, finding himself immediately attracted to her, using his journalism story piece of her mother to keeping himself in her view. Finding themselves drawing to each other, Michael and Mae begin a sensual relationship while getting to one another, including the vague details of the Michael’s recent break-up and plans for the future. Mae, overwhelmed by everything that is happening, tries to find herself during this romance, getting close to Michael as she begins to understand her mom’s past and why she hid from her.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Who doesn’t love a good romance story? While I do like a lot of film genres out there, the romance genre is one of those peculiar ones that’s more connected to other genre films and narratives than ones that stand upon itself. Of course, the more traditional approach or romance stories comes in the form of romantic comedies (i.e. rom-coms), which I believe definitely do work as they are mostly lighthearted and easy to digest (sort of speak); able to tell its tale of romance, but in a way that’s quick and fast. Films like Crazy Rich Asians, The Wedding Date, You’ve Got Mail, and Pretty Woman are such prime examples of this. To be sure, there are more “sweeping” romance tales showcase plenty more in the drama genre; offering up narratives that captivate its characters in more dramatic fashion. Something like Gone with the Wind, Titanic, The Painted Veil, and Pride and Prejudice comes to mind. Of course, they are plenty of other takes on romances stories that have different genres to pull from, but, in terms of cinematic storytelling, those two are the frequently used.
This brings me back to talking about The Photograph, a 2020 feature that’s the latest romance tale of cinematic storytelling. Sadly, I really didn’t hear much about this movie…. whether in-theaters at my local movie theater or on the various film-based websites that I usually scroll for “buzz” news of the movie world. I do remember seeing the film’s movie trailer from time to time and (on the whole), it looked decent enough. Definitely got a feeling of a romance drama movie that had an interesting premise (presumably switching between the past and the present throughout its narrative). Plus, the cast of the film looked good. However, it wasn’t as captivating to fully intrigued me. Of course, The Photograph was released on February 14th, 2020 (Valentine’s Day), so I imagined that a lot of couples would be seeing this movie during its opening weekend. Me personally…. I went to see Sonic the Hedgehog. After that, I kept on forgetting to see this movie; choosing to go see Fantasy Island and Downhill (released the same weekend as well) instead of The Photograph. In hindsight, I probably should’ve gone to see The Photograph instead of those two bombers. Anyway, I kept on pushing seeing The Photograph, which was then followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the closing of the movie theaters. Thus, I decided to check out the film later on…. when the movie got released VOD. Now, I finally had the time to check The Photograph out and to see it was. And what did I think of it? Well, it’s a yes and no kind of thing (a sort of rock and hard place for me). To be sure, the movie is good and well-crafted with great cast, but The Photograph is uneven in its storytelling and not enough “romantic” bit to it. It’s an adequate romance story that works, but just not a great one.
The Photograph is directed by Stella Meghie, whose previously directorial works includes such projects like Jean of the Joneses, Everything, Everything, and The Weekend. Given her background and of past endeavors, Meghie seems to make The Photograph her more ambitious project to tackle or rather her most “intimate” project. To be sure, she approaches the film with a great sense of heart and sincerity; tackling such a tale that can speak to virtually anyone; showcasing plenty of ideas and fundamentals of being young and in the intangible “throws” of love as well as the individual identities found within. With this mind, Meghie shapes The Photograph with great understand of romance being the “main key” of the picture, highlighting such strife and triumphs within people and how those things can get in the way of finding love. Perhaps one of the more unique aspects that Meghie does with movie is having the film’s narrative spilt between two very distinct threads; one following Mae and Michael’s journey in the present and the other following Christina and Isaac in the past. This dual narrative offers up plenty of intriguing moments and definitely showcases the potential for some complexity character-built moments. Plus, I do like that the movie presents a cultural representation for many of its characters, with a sense that plays to the strength of the film’s identity and notoriety.
Additionally, the film’s presentation is quite good; presenting a lush feature of colors and hues that make up the feature’s two distinct time periods. What’s utilized in this capacity is actually really good and definitely feels appropriate within its setting and costume apparels. Thus, whatever faults the movie has, its technical and background presentation is one that is pleasing to look at. Plus, both the film’s score, which was done by Robert Glasper, and the film’s soundtrack are well-matched together and provide a very appealing nature to the movie as well definitely help strength various scenes throughout the story.
Unfortunately, The Photograph doesn’t exactly hit its intended mark the right way and ends up being more of frustrating feature than a pleasant one. How so? Well, for starters, the movie itself is quite boring. I’m not saying that the movie is terrible or not uninteresting, but the narrative and how it presents itself doesn’t really have a strong impact, which is quite strange. The overall arching story for the feature is indeed meaningful and definitely has the right amount of integrity and romantic notions to make for a compelling tale to be told (that’s for sure), with a complexity of a dual narrative taking place. However, the balanced nature of that dual narrative and fullness to fully captivate on such a notion never truly rises to the occasion in the movie. Who is to blame? Well, that’s both from Meghie’s direction as well as script handling, which was also done by Meghie as well. Perhaps the pulling of the “double duty” from Meghie is what causes such a strain on The Photograph as the film lacks a certain type “dramatic” punch for majority of the runtime. In terms of direction, the dual narrative, while really admirable, never fully feels quite fleshed out, with awkward transitional points between past and present stories. Plus, the script handling of the movie feels quite half-baked because the amount of time spent in those two narrative tales doesn’t feel adequate enough to fully invest in their respective plots. For example, the “past” narrative is perhaps the more compelling of the two, but we only see part of it and doesn’t feel complete. Likewise, the “present” narrative is more traditional approach of romance, but feels forced and rather clunky…as if nothing is happened. Not much drama or dynamic.
Coinciding with that notion, there is a sense of a predictable nature of this movie. Like most romance narratives out there, there is quite cliché formula to follow to try to capitalize on suspenseful and passionate moments in the relationship between its characters and, while Meghie doesn’t make Mae and Michael’s relationship nor Christina and Isaac’s relationship syrupy like a Nicholas Sparks novel, I felt that there is still a predicable path that Meghie follows to the letter, with the commonplace struggles and pitfalls of a young budding couple to face. To be sure, I kind of figured that before I started watching the movie, but with the film’s sluggish pace, these critical points were a little bit more exacerbated. Because of this, I felt that the movie was more of a TV movie (like something you would find on the Lifetime channel) not a theatrical feature film. A bit more conflict and substance is what I think that the film needs. Thus, Meghie’s intent is crystal clear to make The Photograph a multi-faceted tale of love and connections to the past, but takes a more artistic approach than a wholesome entertaining one; depicting some good ideas that never fully follow through.
The cast in The Photograph is probably one of the more positive strengths that the feature has in its arsenal, with the selection of the various actors and actresses capable of tackling such a filmmaking project like this and do so in a respectable fashion to make majority of the characters more believable than how they are written. Leading the charge of this endeavor are the film’s two main protagonist characters of Mae Eames and Michael Block, who are played by actress Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield. Rae, known for her roles in Insecure, Little, and The Lovebirds, pulls off a more subdued character role than she has been in some of her previous work, but I believe she actuals does a fantastic job in Mae; imbuing her with a sense of pride and determination as well as being a little bit vulnerable as she uncovers more about her mother’s past and her courtship with Michael. Similarly, Stanfield, known for his roles in Knives Out, Sorry to Bother You, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web, does a great job as Michael. He’s definitely the more “straightforward” character of the two, but Stanfield has a certain screen presence charm that makes Michael quite appealing and likeable from the moment he appears on screen. Equally, both Ear and Stanfield share some great chemistry with each other and definitely helps us (the viewers) buy into the relationship between Mae and Michael.
Likewise, actress Chanté Adams (Monsters and Men and Bad Hair) and actor Y’lan Noel (The First Purge and Insecure) give quite effective character roles as Christina Eames and Isaac Jefferson, while actor Rob Morgan (Daredevil and Mudbound) as the older version of Isaac. Together, these three acting talents give great performances, even though they are slightly limited by the film’s narrative constraints a few times.
The rest of the cast, including actress Chelsea Peretti (Game Night and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) as Sara Rodgers, actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. (It Comes at Night and Luce) as Andy Morrison, actor Lil Rel Howery (Get Out and Uncle Drew) as Kyle, actress Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq and If Beale Street Could Talk), actress Marsha Stephanie Blake (Orange is the New Black and When They See Us) as Christina’s mother, Violet Eames, and actor Courtney B. Vance (Office Christmas Party and Dangerous Minds) as Louis Morton, are delegated to more supporting roles in the feature. Despite their limited screen-time, most of these acting talents are well-acted and are suitable to the fictional character roles that they are portraying.
A story of the past reflects upon the present and Mae Eames faces the truth of her mother’s memory and her newly-minted relationship with Michael Block in the movie The Photograph. Director Stella Meghie’s latest film takes a jump into the romance arena and certainly provides a more intricate set pieces than say a traditional rom-com endeavor (a more commonplace method of romance tales). However, the movie itself, despite a strong cast (with some good acting present), a lush presentation, and the duality nature of the story, somewhat fails to capture its fully narrative, with a several pacing issues and lacking certain elements to captivate viewers. To me, this movie was okay-ish. I’m not saying that it was terrible as the film is quite sincere in its overture themes of love and identity, but I felt that there could’ve been a lot more added to the movie and in a better way. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is an “iffy choice” as some will like it, while others will probably find it to be a tad boring. Altogether, while tales of romance are bountiful with the trials and tribulations of willful love, The Photograph semi-captures its passionate affair with sincerity, but lacks the wholesomeness to full capitalizes on its executional merits.
3.1 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice)
Released On: February 14th, 2020
Reviewed On: August 5th, 2020
The Photograph is 106 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief strong language