I wish I liked The Photograph more than I did. It’s by no means a bad film. The things it does well it does extremely well while the things it doesn’t do well with flounders about aimlessly.
Stella Meghie who wrote and directed The Photograph excels at showing small intimate moments between her characters. It’s the moments between the drag the movie down. The biggest problem is that it is a movie about four people falling in love, one in the past and the other in the present.
Watching them fall in love isn’t the problem. It’s the way their stories are intertwined. The story set in the past is gutted and chopped up in favor of the one in the present.
Mae (Issa Rae) works for an art gallery exhibiting her mother’s work, a documentary photographer. Her mother has died of cancer and has left her two notes, one for her, and one for her father Louis (Courtney B. Vance). Her mother instructs Mae to read her letter first before delivering her father’s letter.
Mae’s letter from her mother Christina (Chante Adams) tells her about her life and first love Issac (Y’lan Noel) in a small Louisiana parish. She reads the letter while curating her mother’s life’s work while also meeting and falling for a journalist Michael (Lakeith Stanfield). We’ve met Michael at the beginning of the movie when he interviews an older Issac (Rob Morgan) a local fisherman and oil worker.
Issac has a photograph of Mae’s mother, Christina, the one who got away. The photograph leads Michael to Mae. It becomes obvious as to how all the characters and plots connect even the cryptic reason as to why Mae is to read her letter first before delivering her father’s.
The beginning of The Photograph was promising as Michael and Issac talked. Issac talks about how he is a third-generation fisherman and how when the oil company came down to Louisiana he trained to work on the oil rig. The oil spill has all but destroyed him and the community. The fish are gone and so are the oil jobs.
Indeed the conversations are where Meghie’s talent comes alive. The way the characters talk demonstrate a keen ear for characterization. Take for example the discussion between Mae and Michael over dinner about their favorite musicians. The conversation isn’t there just to reference popular artists but gives us an intimate peek inside the character’s inner thoughts and feelings.
Rae lights up any scene she’s with one of the most infectious smiles of our times. But if that was all she had Mae would not be as interesting as she is. Rae brings a quiet confidence and wary intelligence to the role.
For his part, Stanfield, who is already one of the more interesting actors of his generation, is allowed to play a charismatic and loving man who while wary of love can’t help but fall for Mae. He has a way of looking at her like a man in love which sounds silly until you realize few men do this in film. It is integral to what makes so much of The Photograph work.
The parts that don’t work is the meshing of the two timelines. Noel and Adams, like Stanfield and Rae, are both subtle and forthright in their desire for each other. But Meghie’s script doesn’t give Noel and Adams much to say.
The two share many meaningful looks indicating that the two feel a very real need and want for the other. But that’s about it. I wasn’t as invested as I was with Mae and Michael partly because Christine and Issac don’t talk with each other much and partly because Meghie skips large swaths of time in favor of exposition.
But even with the narrative drag Mark Schwartzbard’s camera manages to make The Photograph hum with desire few romantic movies achieve. Meghie and Schwartzbard stage the sex scene between Mae and Michael during the height if Hurricane Irene. Tastefully and emotionally charged, the scene is beautifully lit and put together. Sex scenes in movies often feel over protracted or exploitative bur Meghie and Schwartzbard strike a delicate and effective balance.
Meghie’s confidence in her actors belies a major talent. Her characters have rich inner lives expressed in the faces of the subtle and expressive faces of its cast. The Photograph is a simmering love story but sometimes feels adrift in its own thoughts. Refreshing considering how many movies can’t even muster up a single thought.