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Dithering ambivalence dooms ‘The Photograph’

Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield star in a romance that doesn’t give them enough to think, say, or do

If there is film medicine for melancholy, it’s not contained within The Photograph.

The highly-anticipated romantic drama from writer-director Stella Meghie, which stars Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, opens Friday, which is also Valentine’s Day. It hops back and forth as it recounts two stories of love experienced by a mother and daughter.

The Photograph proves especially disappointing considering its cast: Teyonah Parris (Chiraq, Survivor’s Remorse), and Lil Rel Howery (Get Out, Uncle Drew) play sister-in-law and brother to Stanfield’s Michael Block, a big-time reporter who is considering dropping his life in New York to take a job in London. Hamilton alum Jasmine Cephas-Jones and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce, Waves) make for a cute, if unnecessary and underwritten, secondary couple and story line.

Asia (Teyonah Parris, left) and Kyle Block (Lil Rel Howery, right) in The Photograph.

Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures

A dithering, unshakable ambivalence dooms The Photograph, which might be the most distilled example of the deficiencies in Meghie’s work as a writer/director: Her films often struggle to offer much beyond swoon-inducing production design and set decor.

Like Everything, Everything, Meghie’s adaptation of the Nicola Yoon young adult novel of the same name, The Photograph stagnates in its predictability. But predictability alone is not what sinks the film. Even a familiar story, when well told, can be a repository of beauty and pleasure. The journey to reach the end of The Photograph, though, with its lack of consideration for detail, merely exasperates.

Meghie, a former fashion PR agent, expects her audience to accept quite a bit at face value. For instance, during a reporting trip to Louisiana, a laconic Michael meets and interviews Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan). While there, Michael notices a photograph of a woman Isaac used to love — a photographer named Christina Eames (Chanté Adams) who liked to take pictures and keep secrets and left Isaac behind in Louisiana to move to New York to pursue a career in photography. I wish there was more to tell you about Christina. Regrettably, there is not. Only Morgan (Mudbound, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) manages to use his scant time on screen to transcend the grating limitations of the page, finding ways to imbue his face and voice with 30 years’ worth of sublimated heartbreak and regret.

Chanté Adams stars as Christina Eames in The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie.

Universal Pictures

Once back in New York, Michael learns that Eames has a daughter named Mae (Rae) who is curating a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Queens Museum. Michael decides to go meet Mae and the two begin dating. Even Meghie’s vision of New York’s black intelligentsia, of which Michael and Mae are both members, is wan and barely considered.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that a story about a journalist and an art curator exhibit some depth around those jobs. Surely a woman like Mae is capable of more than small-ball debates about Drake, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar, and yet, that’s all she and Michael discuss in any detail. The dialogue is often stiff and desultory. Both Rae and Howery offer microdoses of laughter in their timing when delivering jokes — someone please drop them into the modern screwball comedy they so obviously deserve.

As I watched the film, I kept coming back to the same query: Why? Why don’t these people ask each other questions about themselves (especially Michael, whose entire job revolves around curiosity)? Why do they make the decisions they make? Why do they find each other interesting?

Both Christine’s and Mae’s apartments suggest tremendous wealth, something that certainly would not go unremarked upon by a journalist worth his salt (trips to anyone’s flat in one of the world’s most expensive cities almost inevitably lead to conversations about real estate and affordability). Museum curators are notoriously low-paid, and Mae’s apartment, by New York standards, is a palace.

LaKeith Stanfield portrays Michael Block in The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie.

Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures

Perhaps Christine was a commercially successful photographer who left her fortune to her daughter. Maybe the man who raised Mae, played by Courtney B. Vance, is a hedge-fund type who’s subsidizing his daughter’s life. We have no idea, because Meghie never includes that information in the script. Even the first Bad Boys movie mentions that the reason Mike Lowrey can afford a swanky Miami bachelor pad and drive a six-figure sports car is because family money subsidizes his civil servant detective salary — it’s just basic storytelling logic and respect for the audience.

In The Photograph, and to a lesser extent, her romantic comedy, The Weekend, Meghie doesn’t show how people’s jobs, upbringings, and surroundings shape them, aside from the most superficial observations. It’s confounding, especially because Meghie’s spry feature debut, Jean of the Joneses, about a Jamaican family in Brooklyn, didn’t suffer from these problems.

Every element of The Photograph (production design, location, intimacy choreography, music, character) seems alienated from every other one, as if a bot was programmed to spit out a romantic drama filled with brown-skinned pretty people based on a database of Barry Jenkins films and Thorazine-inflected Love Jones retreads.

Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield, left) and Mae Morton (Issa Rae, right) in The Photograph.

Emily Aragones/Universal Pictures

For example, when Mae and Michael hook up in the apartment, Mae tells Michael that she’s asking a divine force for “willpower.” But the sex scene that follows isn’t consistent with a woman trying and failing to quiet her carnality with a hot new acquaintance. Instead, what follows is incongruously stilted.

And Christine’s first darkroom lacks the one element that makes a darkroom a darkroom — it’s clearly not lighttight. Light pours in through the cracks of the Louisiana shed where Christina establishes her first space for developing photos by dramatically screwing in a red safelight bulb. Maybe these oversights could be forgiven if they weren’t central to the plot — a movie called The Photograph ought to demonstrate some basic familiarity with the process of making photographs.

Young Isaac Jefferson (Y’lan Noel, left) with young Christina Eames (Chanté Adams, right).

Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures

These elements don’t just help make the story achieve some sort of truth, they could have provided much-needed guidance for how it unfolded. For instance, the film doesn’t explain what Michael’s big story is about beyond a nod to Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

Without a reason for Michael’s multiple reporting trips to Louisiana, which ostensibly provide the frame for The Photograph, the film feels rudderless. It’s a series of pretty pictures of people being affectionate, but little else.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.