Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield in The Photograph (Photo: Universal)

★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Stella Meghie
STARS Issa Rae, LaKeith Stanfield

Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield as bona fide romantic leads — who knew?

Rae, best known as a comedian, and Stanfield, most recognizable for quirky roles in offbeat projects like Get Out and Sorry to Bother You, fall in love in The Photograph, and chances are audiences will fall in love with their relaxed and natural chemistry. It’s just a shame their romance is trapped in a movie as staid as this one.

Written and directed by Stella Meghie, The Photograph is one of those films that follows two storylines over two different periods. The prominent one is set in the present, as journalist Michael Block (Stanfield) leaves New York to cover a story in Louisiana (it has something to do with post-Katrina hardships and/or man-made environmental disasters; like most things in this film, it’s rather vague). While interviewing fisherman Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), Michael notices the striking photos on display in his home and learns that they were taken by Christina Eames, Isaac’s old flame and a prominent photographer who has since passed away.

This leads to the secondary tale about how the young Christina (Chanté Adams) had to choose between staying in her stifling hometown and marrying Isaac (played as a younger man by Y’lan Noel) or heading to NYC to try her luck as a professional picture taker.

The modern-day story continues with Michael returning to New York and looking up Christina’s daughter, museum curator Mae Morton (Rae). Instant sparks are struck, and the two tentatively test the waters of a relationship. But there are distractions, with Michael considering a career move to London and Mae constantly losing herself in a letter written to her by her deceased mother.

The Photograph hails from an original screenplay penned by Meghie, but it might as well have been based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. While not as sudsy as many Sparks screen adaptations, it proves to be just as drowsy. A leisurely pace in a love story can allow the romance to simmer before sliding into sizzling sensuality, but the lethargic pace here only emphasizes the utter predictability of both tales being told. The lack of dramatic urgency is palpable, and the one attempt at providing any sort of twist is so obvious that it will lead to shrugs rather than shock.

The performances can’t be faulted, starting with Adams as the torn young woman and Morgan as the tender old man. And while their relationship as presented by Meghie remains rather sketchy, Rae and Stanfield do enough to convince us that their characters really are falling for each other. As for the rest of The Photograph, it proves to be woefully underdeveloped.

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