Writer-director Stella Meghie’s romantic drama The Photograph is a lovely ghost of a movie, the kind of thing we used to call, in the days before the ascent of the superhero film, a popular entertainment. We get so few love stories today that it’s easy to forget they used to be a staple of the movie-release schedule; sometimes all you want is a chance to watch beautiful people meet, fall in love and break apart, only to be reunited (or not) in a way that feels gratifying. That’s what Meghie—whose credits include the comedies Jean of the Joneses (2016) and The Weekend (2018)—gives us here. The Photograph, both thoughtful and entertaining, with a pleasurably laid-back vibe, belongs to a class of movie that barely exists anymore on the big screen. It’s also a reminder that appealing actors are sometimes the best spectacle of all.
The Photograph is really two entwined love stories, one set in the present, the other in the late 1980s. Lakeith Stanfield plays Michael, a reporter for a New York-based magazine. On assignment in New Orleans, reporting on the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the area’s communities, he meets Isaac (Rob Morgan, in a fine, understated performance), a longtime resident with tales to tell. Isaac shows Michael a photograph of a woman he once loved, taken some 30 years earlier: This woman lounges in a regular kitchen chair, gazing at the camera’s lens, at us, with an uneasy mix of discontent and defiance. The subject of the photograph is a photographer herself, Christina (played, with radiant gravity, by Chanté Adams), who left Lousiana—and Isaac—for New York to pursue a dream career. Intrigued by the photograph, Michael sets out to learn more about Christina, and in the process meets her daughter, Mae (Issa Rae), a sophisticated museum curator. Mae isn’t sure she’ll ever be ready to commit to a guy, but we can see she’s as taken with Michael as he is with her. Shortly after their first meeting, he shows up at a museum event she hasn’t invited him to; their eyes meet, and the crowd of fancy-looking people milling about is virtually vaporized by the electricity between them. They flirt and share a first kiss. Later, weathering a Hurricane Sandy-like storm, they end up in bed. Both have their doubts about committing—Michael is still processing a recent breakup—but they also sense that the whatever-it-is that’s happening between them is worth exploring.
There will, of course, be an event that drives them apart, as well as the revelation of a secret. Nothing in The Photograph will really surprise you. But surprise isn’t the point. Meghie is alive to the appeal of her actors and the easy chemistry between them. Rae, a marvelous comic actress, is somewhat restrained here, but she captures the essence of what it’s like to be a woman in the city, with a solid career, who sometimes just can’t turn off her BS detector. She gazes at Michael, with his liquid eyes and defense-melting earnestness, as if she can hardly believe he’s real. He seems to be presenting his soul to her in the smallest words and gestures, like the way he says, “I’m sorry” when he learns her mother has recently passed away—Stanfield makes it all feel believable. The duo’s scenes together have an easy, loping rhythm. When Michael visits Mae’s apartment for the first time, and puts on the Al Green LP they’ve plucked from her mother’s things, your first impulse may be to roll your eyes at the obviousness of it all. But Meghie shapes the moment into a luxurious swoon. This is just how we want things to be, the way we’ve so often seen them in the movies. The Photograph captures the way people fall in love without meaning to, when they’re on their way to doing other things.
It also features some terrific second bananas, among them Lil Rel Howrey as Michael’s brother, who’s not wrong when he says that stormy weather is the best “do-it” weather. There are a few sex scenes in The Photograph, but they’re tender and discreet. Viewers are advised, however, that the movie pulls out the stops when it comes to fashion and New York City real-estate porn: Mae’s apartment is an urban palace with mile-high windows and a kitchen worthy of a cooking show. And the first time we see her, she’s wearing a voluminous trench coat in a black, white and brown graphic print, the kind of chic, daring gear you might dream of buying if you happen to land that important high-profile job—and if you don’t have to ride the subway ever again.
Meghie takes pleasure in presenting that fantasy for us, the reverie of what it would be like to have great clothes, a cool job and a massive, gorgeous apartment. But she presents all of those things in movie language, not the vocabulary of a sterile Instagram feed. At times The Photograph feels like a modern version of a ‘30s Hollywood romance, where the heroine might live unapologetically in an all-white art deco apartment and wear marabou slippers while lounging. In other words, the trappings of Mae’s life feel earned, lived in and enjoyed, not presented solely to stoke envy and prove that she’s living her #bestlife. The boyfriend who loves her, almost instantly, for who she is—even while she’s still figuring out who she is—is also part of that fantasy. The Photograph is a story about the people we dream of being, people who find happiness despite mistakes they make along the way. It’s harder than it looks in the movies—but then, that’s why we need the movies. Vive the love story! And its power to make us believe, if only for a few hours, that maybe that could be us, too.