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Romance at the movies is something that’s almost assured whenever Valentine’s Day is around the corner. Much like how October is known to drum up some scares for Halloween, there are films that are tailor made for the holiday, and writer/director Stella Meghie’s The Photograph is meant to be a prime piece of cinematic candy for the masses.
A dual-focused love story, half of The Photograph is about Mae (Issa Rae), a woman falling for Michael, a journalist (Lakeith Stanfield) who’s researching a story about her late, estranged mother, a noted photographer named Christina Eames (Chante Adams). While Mae and Michael move through their courtship, a second story is told, through a letter that Christina left her daughter before her passing.
This second narrative focuses on Christina’s love affair with a man named Issac (Y’lan Noel), and how things eventually fell apart between the two during their short time together in the 1980s. As Mae learns more about her mother, she questions her own personality in return, wondering if she has the same problems with love her mother did.
In the end, both of The Photograph’s stories are supposed to come together to make an interesting whole. That isn’t the case, though, as this unfocused narrative divides more than conquers the attention of its audience, telling two stories that don't quite lock together.
There are two stories at work in The Photograph, and neither is given enough time to be properly built.
Both of the stories being told in The Photograph would be fine if they were told in their own, self-contained strands; or, at the very least, if one of the plots were to be given priority in the narrative that occupies this film’s structure. It’s particularly frustrating that when it feels like one scenario just starts to get interesting, the movie switches tracks to the other half of things to check in. With that sort of energy at work, The Photograph doesn’t allow the audience to really take hold of either side firmly, leaving two half stories that don’t meet together like the puzzle pieces they’re meant to be.
Even a little bit of pruning of the flashback story in order to let the modern angle take priority would be an improvement, as the framework of The Photograph is supposed to be focused on the progression of Mae and Michael’s relationship. That focus is missing a little something to tie it all together, because of the fact that both stories feel like they could have been their own movies.
Romantic comedy tropes are mixed with romantic drama, adding up to a confused overall tone.
Something else that seems to crop up in The Photograph’s confused plot structure is the fact that both stories seem to have a different intention in mind. Trying to marry these two halves together could work in some cases, but based on what it seems the film is trying to provide for its audience, it would have been better for the stories to be fleshed out in their own space.
In terms of the modern plot following Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, The Photograph feels more like a romantic comedy with an added serious weight to it. There’s a ton of cute moments between our protagonists, and in a refreshing reversal, Rae gets to play the stronger half of the duo while Stanfield is the lovesick dreamer. Add in some quirky side characters played by Lil Rel Howery and Jasmine Cephas-Jones, each helping one of our romantic leads sort their feelings, and you've got the template for a version of The Photograph that could have been lighter and more romantically engaging.
Meanwhile, Chante Adams and Y’lan Noel’s half of the narrative is a drama about the personal nature of relationships, especially when one half is more invested than the other. Seeing their hearts break, and even watching Christina's evolving home life with both her mother and her boyfriend, is a more serious experience that is meant to make the audience feel the weight of the drama. There are complimentary threads between these two halves, which if woven correctly could have been rather effective, but without that cohesion, The Photograph misses an important mark in its romantic journey across time.
Despite the chemistry of Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae, The Photograph won’t sweep you off your feet.
Even as the narrative and tonal confusion throw off The Photograph, there’s still some aspects that should be celebrated about this film. In particular, the casting of Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield is inspired, as both performers are absolutely charming individually. Those hoping that Mae and Michael make for a sweet couple won’t be disappointed, as their vulnerability and jovial nature is beautiful.
With a more bittersweet context, Chante Adams’s Christina and Y’lan Noel’s Issac also sparkle as the doomed couple that are destined to fall out. We only get to experience bits and pieces of their story, as these flashbacks are supposed to really be building the character of Mae and her distrust in love. It’s because of that intent that audiences who really get wrapped up in either half of this story are bound to be let down, as there’s no greater depth to either side provided.
Overall, the total experience of The Photograph is still a bit underwhelming, but still serves as a seasonal entry in the cinematic canon of Valentine’s Day titles. A lush musical score by composer/pianist Robert Glasper helps tie together, with airy jazz tunes playing the mournful and lovely sides of this movie’s narrative coin to the hilt.
While the holiday will certainly draw folks out to the theaters to see this movie, don’t expect it to sweep you off your feet entirely. Rather, think of The Photograph as a first date that isn’t a total disaster, but still makes you weigh your options before calling for a second meetup.