Director Stella Meghie is best known for the 2017 romance Everything, Everything starring Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson. After directing episodes of Insecure and Grownish, she returns to the big screen with The Photograph – another romantic film starring Issa Rae as Mae and Lakeith Stanfield as Michael. Mae’s photographer mother Christina has recently passed away and leaves Mae a letter, in which she tells the story of her romance in Louisiana with fisherman Isaac. The film frequently cuts to flashbacks in which we see young Christina (played by Chante Adams) and young Isaac (played by Y’lan Noel) in the 1980s. Christina is torn between wanting to go to New York City to pursue her photography dreams and staying in Louisiana with her mother and Isaac. In the present day, journalist Michael visits older Isaac (Rob Morgan) to interview him about how Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill has affected him and his work. While there, he sees photographs taken by Christina and starts taking an interest in her and this is how he meets Mae, who works in a gallery in New York.
Lakeith Stanfield is one of the best actors working today and should be a much bigger star. He is best known for his work in TV show Atlanta and a rare leading role in Sorry to Bother You. He has made a big impact with supporting roles in Short Term 12, Selma, Straight Outta Compton, The Incredible Jessica James, Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town, Get Out, Uncut Gems and Knives Out. He also recently played the romantic lead in Gina Rodriguez’s Netflix vehicle Someone Great. He has that rare quality of natural charisma, vulnerability and extremely expressive, soulful eyes which are used to great effect here. Issa Rae is best known for her comedic roles in TV show Insecure as well as movies Little and this year’s The Lovebirds (with Kumail Nanjiani). To be honest, her gifts lie with comedy and less with dramatic acting skills, which are not on the same level as Stanfield’s (who elevates everything he is in), but she has some good chemistry with him here. She is a little stiff and unexpressive at times, including an uncomfortable scene where she dances for Michael.
Jasmine Cephas Jones (Hamilton, Blindspotting) and Kelvin Harrison Jr (Luce, Waves) have supporting roles as Mae and Michael’s friends and again, both should be bigger stars. Get Out’s Lil Rey Howery plays Michael’s brother and is the main source of humour in the film. Rob Morgan (Last Black Man in San Francisco, Mudbound) is typically great in his role as present-day Isaac and Courtney B. Vance has a surprisingly tiny role as Mae’s father. Meghie has assembled a large cast that has a depth of quality, even in the smallest of roles.
The 1980s-set scenes in Louisiana (including a trip to New Orleans) are beautifully shot, with careful attention paid to production and costume design. Isaac helps Christina turn an outhouse into a dark room and some of the most visually-striking scenes take place here. A simple shot of Christina and Isaac walking up the stairs in a New Orleans bar is transformed into something transfixing because of the photography and the same shot is replicated in the modern day, with Mae and Michael. Christina wears a figure-hugging blue silk dress in the 80s and Mae wears a bright yellow one in the modern day – both are unforgettable. The modern-day scenes will mostly have you salivating at the New York real estate, including Lil Rey Howery’s enormous brownstone, Christina’s apartment full of books and sculptures and Mae’s impossibly-windowed large modernist place (quite how everyone in the film came to be millionaires is not explained, but if Nora Ephron gets to spoil us with the fantasy of property-porn then why not Meghie?). Mae’s costuming (designed by Keri Langerman) is also to-die-for.
While the romantic elements are good in the two story-lines, the sexual tension between Mae and Michael (particularly created by how he looks at her) is far better than the actual sex scene. It takes place in a storm and feels like a throwback to the 80s in how it is shot, but this does not seem like a deliberate reference, despite the 80s-set section. We get so few sex scenes in American mainstream movies these days, that it matters when they are bad! The writing of The Photograph (also by Meghie) is a little cliched and predictable at times, but all-in-all it’s a winning romance, which is definitely aided by the flashbacks. There is such a paucity of good romantic films out there, that finding even a half-decent one can feel like a big deal. The acting from almost everyone involved elevates this one, as does the costume design and cinematography. Definitely worth watching.
Directed by: Stella Meghie
Written by: Stella Meghie
Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris