The Photograph is a gorgeous looking film about how life doesn’t always go as planned, love will endure even when relationships drift apart, and learning from a shared history doesn’t mean anything is set in stone.
You may have seen films like The Photograph several times before and the tropes that come with them. In fact, the script is straightforward and the themes are subtle. It’s a fairly standard and even straightforward romance by cinematic standards; it may leave many wondering what was the point of Stella Meghie’s beautiful looking film was. Well, let me tell you— it’s about how life doesn’t always go as planned, love will endure even when relationships drift apart, and learning from a shared history doesn’t mean anything is set in stone.
Shortly after Mae’s (Little’s Issa Rae) estranged mother, famed photographer Christina Eames (Monsters and Men‘s enchanting Chanté Adams) passed away, she discovers a photograph in a safe-deposit box at the museum she curates. In a complete chance, reporter Michael Block (Sorry To Bother You‘s Lakeith Stanfield) stumbles upon a series of old photos he is writing a story on and in turn meets Mae, after initially interviewing Isaac (Just Mercy‘s Rob Morgan, with a small, but terrific cameo performance).
Director and writer Stella Meghie sets a lush vibe, along with its sensual score by Robert Glasper, and a small collection of effective musical song choices gives the film a ubiquitous feel between both timelines, which may be the point of how love has not changed much between generations. The performances are good here, with Rae and Stanfield bringing plenty of heat to the screen, while Adam’s classical heartbreaking romance with The First Purge‘s Y’lan Noel has a deep yearning that’s full of hopeful regret.
Stanfield, with this performance and last year’s highly underappreciated Someone Great, has graduated into star leading man status. He brings a lot of sex appeal to the stoic role of Block. While the role is, in part, a cliche about a rising reporter moving on to greater things, his romance with Rae is tethered to the smaller moments about everyday things and experiences that relationships are built and developed on. It’s unexpected, fresh, and doesn’t have to hold the film up with the help of the other romantic plot.
That being said, I’m not sure the film could stand on Mae and Michael’s story alone. You could argue Adam’s role and the early ’80s Louisiana Bayou has a greater cinematic appeal. The Photograph might have been a stronger film by taking you, which it does effectively, to a different time and place, while the current narrative is too mainstream to be considered unique, but too well made to be dismissed.
The Photograph is told with care and quiet confidence that may wrap up too neatly for today’s smarter cinephile. However, considering the resulting sorrow of Adam’s younger past, Meghie’s script gives you the best of both sides of the romance genre. Her film avoids extremes up or downs, that anti-Marriage Story romance that may be medicated for today’s mainstream audience. It’s worth your time for the talented cast (including Luce’s Kelvin Harrison, Jr, who is so good at disappearing into any role he is nearly unrecognizable here) and the thoughtful way it deals with how love doesn’t necessarily result in happiness.
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M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.