Review: The Photograph is a contemplative, painfully slow romance

(from left) Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) and Mae Morton (Issa Rae) in "The Photograph," written and directed by Stella Meghie.
(from left) Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) and Mae Morton (Issa Rae) in "The Photograph," written and directed by Stella Meghie. /

Stella Meghie’s Valentine’s Day romance The Photograph tries for steamy and lingering but ends up feeling sluggish and noncommittal.

Sandwiched between Sonic the Hedgehog and Fantasy Island, Stella Meghie’s The Photograph is this year’s de-facto Valentine’s Day flick — the kind of film you see because your significant other wants to see a romantic movie and there aren’t any other options currently in theaters. The film stars Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae as reporter Michael and museum curator Mae, who are brought together after Mae’s mother, a high-profile photographer, dies unexpectedly.

The film’s structure bounces back and forth between the past and the present. One storyline takes place in the late ’80s, when Christina Eames (Chanté Adams) is a young photographer from Louisiana whose fraying relationship with her mother is exacerbated by her romance with Isaac (Y’Lan Noel). The other sees an old Isaac meet with Lakeith’s Michael, who is profiling him for a story, when a photograph of Christina sends him on a quest to discover more about her life, eventually leading him to Mae.

The mirroring of two generations of a romance in the past and present is a refreshingly creative structure for a genre overpopulated by the same tropes, so credit has to be given to Meghie for an ambitious and unorthodox script. However, despite the fact that on paper the two running storylines should give audiences more than enough to stay interested, The Photograph never takes off or feels particularly urgent.

Much of this is due to the film’s tone, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, The Photograph being so slow makes it much easier to appreciate Mark Schwartzbard’s beautiful cinematography. It’s a film of long, lingering shots and thoughtful editing choices that make each moment of dialogue last as long as possible. The stunning camerawork is also accompanied by a soothing, jazz-inspired score by Robert Glasper, which helps blend the two timelines and makes the film feel less tied down to a certain time period.

On the other hand, all of these aesthetic qualities can’t quite make up for the downside of the film’s slowness, which is that it’s just not interesting enough to keep audiences hooked. The film focuses a surprising amount of its runtime on solely plot-driven action, which would work well if the characters seemed invested in the narrative. But even though Mae has close ties to the narrative, we never really feel for her or even empathize with what she’s feeling because of just how little there is going on onscreen.

The same goes for Stanfield’s Michael, but to an even greater extent: He has no personal stakes in the plot whatsoever, nor does he seem all that enamored with Mae. As a result, when neither character seems affected by the plot or in love with the other, the film falls flat as a romance, despite the copious amounts of onscreen talent.

It’s truly an impressive cast. Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield are two huge names with a number of incredible projects under their belts, but sadly all of their acting choices just feel odd and uncomfortable as opposed to sensual and romantic. A key component to any good romance is chemistry, and unfortunately for The Photograph, the substance between the two leads just isn’t there.

The love story in the past fares a little stronger. While Christine and Isaac have much more believable chemistry than their modern-day counterparts, their relationship also suffers from the writing’s refusal to have them indicate interest. It’s strange to see a film labeled as a romance seem so reluctant to show characters expressing affection for each other, and the movie suffers for it.

The rest of the cast fills out well, but feels out of place in a film with such a sleepy tone. Chelsea Peretti, Lil Rel Howery, and Jasmine Cephas-Jones all inject the film with some much-needed humor; the trio provides the few moments of levity and energy in a movie otherwise bogged down by how seriously it takes itself.

On the whole, The Photograph‘s quiet, contemplative tone, beautiful visuals, and atmospheric score are reminiscent of Barry Jenkins’ triumphant 2018 film If Beale Street Could talk, but with all the soul and emotion sucked out of it. While the aesthetics and premise are strong, there just isn’t enough passion in The Photograph to make it a Valentine’s Day romance worth seeing.

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What’s your favorite romance movie? Do you have plans this Valentine’s Day? Sound off in the comments below.