It’s a fairly sad commentary on the current state of the world that the Valentine’s Day offerings at the cineplex include a god-awfully stupid pseudo-horror reboot of a cheesy 80s show alongside a hundred-miles-an-hour, kid-tastic video game-inspired romp. What happened to, you know, love and all the rest of that Hallmark-inspired gooeyness that used to dominate the mid-February box office?
Fortunately, Universal hasn’t kicked Cupid out the door, and, even more fortunately, The Photograph is just what the (love) doctor ordered.
Written and directed by Stella Mehgie, it plays largely like the kind of story Nicholas Sparks still hopes to write someday. Flashbacks tie together the story of two connected generations, and richly-developed characters bring it all to life with realism and depth. At its heart, The Photograph is a simple, no-frills film, but Mehgie effortlessly (it seems) turns it into something moving and memorable.
Lakeith Stanfield stars as Mike, a Queens-based journalist putting together a story on life in the bayou in the years since Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. When interviewing old-timer Isaac (Rob Morgan), Mike learns how the fisherman lost the love of his life, Christina (Chanté Adams), when she moved to New York to pursue photography. This leads Mike back home and to a meeting with Christina’s daughter Mae (Issa Rae), a museum curator who is in the process of sorting through her late mother’s belongings.
They, of course, click immediately and, while sifting through mementos, trip on old photos… which shoot us back in time to the days when Isaac and Christina were two young people in love. As their flashback-relationship falls apart, Mike and Mae get closer in the present, aided with finessed humor from Mike’s married brother Kyle (Lil Rel Howery).
The Photograph unfolds in a beautifully natural rhythm that takes its time to breathe and allow everything come together (though not without hiccups). There’s not a thing in the film that doesn’t work, whether it’s Mike and Mae’s innocuous first-date conversation about Drake and Kendrick or their tender evening shared in a power outage during a New York storm. Even the requisite third-act complication doesn’t feel forced; it’s just another real-life chapter in the couple’s story, and Mehgie just takes us along on the endearing journey.
From the stellar cast (there isn’t a weak link in the bunch) to the velvet-smooth jazz score by piano great Robert Glasper, The Photograph hums like a fine-tuned machine. Filmed on location in New York City and Louisiana (with obvious reverence to both), the film is a reminder of what movies used to be before the days of visual effects and computers and high-tech gadgetry. It’s a simple and beautiful movie about life and love and all that comes with it. And there’s not a thing wrong with that. Cupid lives after all.