The Photograph (2020) is one of those films that is so quiet it would be easy for some to find it boring. The characters aren’t overdramatic. There is no movie conflict that arises to thwart the protagonist’s goals. In fact, all of the characters we meet are decent-to-good people simply searching for their role in this world and a little happiness along their respective journeys. They are flawed in the most basic form of the word – and it was one of the most refreshing things about this film. Writer and director Stella Meghie weave a terrific love story with the minimalist of contrived connections which really just act as a catalyst for the character’s meeting and justification for their actions.
Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) is in Louisiana to interview Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan) when he is introduced to the work of a photographer named Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). Michael meets Christina’s daughter, Mae (Issa Rae), and learns that Christina has recently died. Mae’s mother left her a letter that tells a story of lost love with Isaac but is struggling to deal with the troubled relationship she had with her mother and her sudden passing. Michael and Mae click, but their own insecurities about love and relationships challenge their blossoming romance.
Stanfield continues to impress me with every different role he takes. Compare this character of Michael to his role in Uncut Gems (2019), and you’ll see they are night and day. Stanfield has this natural cool that emanates off of him, and it just instantly makes me like his characters. Yet, each character he plays seems to be completely unique to the others. Michael is confident in most things but is clearly thrown off a bit by Mae. He is charming, yet honest and vulnerable. It’s not hard to see why Mae would fall for him, despite her own issues.
Issa Rae is an actress I’m a little less familiar with, having only seen The Hate You Give (2018). Still, she has a strong presence, and really gels well with Stanfield. I was rooting for the two of them to figure things out, and genuinely understood where she was coming from. Parents are tough, and while many of the issues Mae has with her own are simply told to us, it’s Rae’s mannerisms that sell the issues.
As noted, one element of the film I found to be refreshing was the lack of melodrama. Movies like this so often rely on silly misunderstandings, and characters to blow those misunderstandings out of proportion. The Photograph chooses for its characters to be grounded humans who are able to be disappointed or irritated but also seem to be understanding. There is never a moment that felt overly heightened or sensationalized. It felt like we were truly a fly on the wall with these characters, and were just allowed to sit with them. It’s not that the film has no conflict, but it’s much more subtle with it than other romances.
At about halfway through this film, I’d already decided I like it and was leaning towards the Decent Watch rating. However, as the film progressed and I fell more into these characters and the dual narrative love stories that Meghie was telling, I found myself drawn into a higher rating. I do think the film suffers a bit with exposition, and some of the dialogue is a little bit on the nose – but I really enjoyed the performances and the naturalistic story. The Photograph earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.