Review: Sylvie’s Love is a stunning throwback film with a lackluster story


Sylvie’s Love transports viewers back to the 1950s and ’60s but loses much of its magic along the way

If Sylvie’s Love were meant to be watched purely for the aesthetic, the film would be a sweeping love story with countless wardrobe changes, a swinging soundtrack, and beautifully shot transitions as the movie carries us from the late ’50s into the early ’60s. But that’s not why stories are told, and it’s not why the film exists.

Yes, we desire our films to be visually arresting, for the music featured in them to capture our attention and hopefully our hearts, and we want to look at the characters and imagine ourselves in their clothes, their shoes, and their lives for the hour or two we have the pleasure of getting to know them. However, we also want to be wrapped up in their story and what Sylvie’s Love has in spades in its visuals and music, it lacks in its overall storytelling.

Eugene Ashe, the film’s director and writer, describes his second feature as a passion project inspired by photographs of his family from the 1950s.

In a statement to the press, Ashe said, “[My family] carried themselves with such dignity,” and he wanted to see that translated into a film with Black leads centered on “a love story that showed the sacrifices and tribulations of true love.”

Sylvie’s Love certainly captures the quiet dignity and grace of everyday Black folks in Harlem. Tessa Thompson’s turn as Sylvie is a study on the ingénue. She plays a debutante who spends her time watching television in her father’s record shop as she awaits the return of her fiancé. Sylvie is expected to marry well, take on the duties of a housewife, and live for her family but her eyes and ears seem to always be trained on the TV screen.

Besides her family, the one person to catch her eye is Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a talented saxophone player who takes a job at the record shop just to talk to her. Instantly attracted to each other, the two flirt and tempt fate until Robert’s solo at a jazz club throws them into the haze of a summer romance.

Asomugha and Thompson’s chemistry sparks with youthful abandon in the early parts of the film. Their soft touches, shy glances, and tenderhearted leaps into affection work well to establish a couple that you want to root for despite knowing something will inevitably part them. That something comes in the form of a pregnancy that Sylvie hides from Robert as she sends him off to a gig in Paris without her.

I must say secret baby plots have never been and will never be a favorite of mine but a frictionless secret baby plot is worse. By that I mean, the narrative works to avoid any sort of substantial tension created by a hidden child. It’s 1962 by the time Robert finds out he has a daughter. She is five years old and is being raised by Lacy (Alano Miller), the same man with whom Sylvie nearly broke her engagement only to marry him in Robert’s absence.

Everything is not peachy in Sylvie’s household. She and Lacy don’t see eye-to-eye about her working or her dream of becoming a TV producer once she knows it’s possible. He’s irritatingly uninterested in the fire that fills her belly when it comes to making a name for herself in the industry the same way he wants to make a name for himself at his law firm.

We’re not supposed to like Lacy that’s clear, but Sylvie’s Love also spends little time on letting us get to know him which is unfortunate because Miller is a phenomenal actor who isn’t given much to do in this film. But I digress.

Sylvie leaves Lacy after the loss of her father, Robert handles the revelation that he has a child rather well, and Lacy just fades from this girl’s life like it’s nothing and the baby just accepts it. As a viewer, watching Sylvie’s Love is much like a lesson in accepting that things will happen in this film and no matter how big the event the consequences will be slight and the reconciliation unsatisfying.

Ashe stacks the stakes high in the film, but they’re played like they’re low. Affairs mean little and do little in the plot. Abandonment happens but it’s quickly dealt with or swept under the rug. What carries this movie to the finish line is its quest, intended or otherwise, to get back to the magic of the summer in 1957 despite the fact that these characters have grown past it.

Sylvie’s Love never reclaims the potential that simmered in its first act. It coasts through interesting but barely explored plot points. Mona (Aja Naomi King), Sylvie’s free-spirited cousin, becomes an activist checking in with Sylvie as she fights for the right to vote all across the nation. Robert’s dealing with the death of jazz in the age of Motown. Sylvie is a Black female TV producer in an industry where that’s practically unheard of, and she came from a family that expected a different life for her.

All of that meat was left on the bone and it was disappointing but what Ashe did give us is enough to sit up and pay attention to and hope for more films like Sylvie’s Love. More period pieces with Black people at the center of a story that isn’t set during slavery or so deeply rooted in the struggle that joy and romance play second fiddle to the depiction of racism and atrocities.

Sylvie’s Love, at its best, is escapism. It’s the tulle in a beautiful skirt turning ’round and ’round with a flourish. A film bubbling with sweetness and romance that’s sometimes touched by the magic of the classics.

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Have you seen Sylvie’s Love? Are you planning to give it a look? Let us know in the comments.