It’s not meant as an insult to say that the loudest takeaway from The Photograph is that it is full of beautiful coats.
Because this is a film with some really, really beautiful coats – autumnal oranges, patchworks, tailored denim. Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae waft through this romantic drama with the kind of breeziness you could only aspire to. They’re wealthy, well-dressed and creatively fulfilled, constantly roaming about art galleries, open-plan kitchens and deserted New York City streets. Therein lies The Photograph’s appeal.
Stanfield is Manhattan journalist Michael, who is writing a story on a recently deceased artist, Christina Eames. Left in the woman’s wake is a vast collection of work as well as a slightly bruised daughter, Mae (Rae), who is desperate to learn more about the mother she never truly knew. Both Michael and Mae attempt to piece together Christina’s life, all the while circling one another romantically. Meanwhile, in flashback, we follow Christina (Chanté Adams) as she falls in love, flees rural Louisiana for a new life in New York, and struggles to balance motherhood with her creative dreams.
Both timelines occur concurrently, which only serves to highlight the flaw at the centre of The Photograph. Stanfield and Rae are so wonderful together, with a loose, soft chemistry, that the film cools whenever they venture off-screen. It doesn’t help that the film’s script insists on telling so much of Christina’s journey rather than showing it.
Adams is captivating, but she’s stuck with a character who verbalises every single one of her woes. “Don’t you want more than this?” she asks, when she has one foot out of the door. “I wish I didn’t leave people behind so often,” she confesses, while explaining that she leaves people behind often. Jarring, too, is the disconnect between the Christina as portrayed by Adams and the one described by those who knew her. In Mae’s timeline, Christina is spoken of as cold, distant and self-destructive, yet Adams plays her as compassionate and warm, if somewhat haunted. It feels like two movies, and two versions of an integral character, awkwardly stitched together.
What luck, then, that Stella Meghie’s film returns to its stronger elements so often. Stanfield, currently enjoying a glorious run that has included Uncut Gems and Knives Out, finds rich, swoon-worthy sensitivity in his gruff, mumbling baritone. Rae, best known for her HBO comedy Insecure, acquits herself nicely to more dramatic material.
Similarly, there’s a sweet profundity to much of the present-day scenes. Love is described in the letters Christina left behind as almost supernatural in its effect, while Meghie’s camera harnesses the power of a lingering look or an impactful entrance.
It’s in these moments that The Photograph brings to mind the frustratingly short-lived wave of glossy black romances from the late Nineties and early Noughties, specifically the jazzy and spirited Love Jones (1997), and the lyrical Sanaa Lathan vehicle Brown Sugar (2002). They were movies that were also full of soft jazz, lush sensuality and enviable wardrobes. While The Photograph only occasionally reaches the highs of its genre predecessors, it’s lovely to have these kinds of movies back again all the same.