The Photograph is a good looking movie.
By “good looking,” I don’t just mean “visually pleasing,” even though The Photograph is a gorgeous film. Director Stella Meghie moves her camera deliberately, giving time for the actors to simply enjoy the space they share together. This gentle pace allows cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard to luxuriate in the actors’ faces, often bathing them in rich reds and blues.
No, by “good looking,” I mean that The Photograph is a good movie about looking. Its most effective scenes involve members of the two main couples staring at each other. Sure, they kiss and dance and hold each other, as one expects from a romance movie. But Meghie is much more interested in the gentle connections between when two people sharing looks of longing.
It helps that Meghie has cast some of the best eye actors working today. Lakeith Stanfield plays Michael Block, a reporter whose investigations lead him to Mae Morton (Issa Rae), daughter of famed photographer Christine Eames (Chante Adams). Stanfield transforms the weird energy he brought to roles in Atlanta, Get Out, and Sorry to Bother You into a sincere stare. He looks at Mae with an openness that pleads, almost demands, for intimacy. The comic chops Rae developed on Awkward Black Girl and Insecure allow her to give Mae sharp stares, at once penetrating and searching.
In the movie’s best scene, Michael drops by a film screening at the museum where Mae works, and the two notice each other through a crowd. The “Some Enchanted Evening” bit may be a familiar romance trope, but Rae and Stanfield sell the sublime excitement and fear of watching a potential romantic interest watch you. The moment feels vulnerable in a way we rarely see in film.
Unfortunately, the movie is less effective when it comes to narrative, a problem exacerbated by the film’s split timeline. Half of the movie follows the present-day courtship between Michael and Mae, while the other flashes back to the mid-80s and the romance between Mae’s mother Christine and a fisherman named Isaac (Y’Lan Noel).
Like Rae and Stanfield, Noel and Adams have chemistry together and share magnetic glances. But Meghie too often pushes plot developments that seem to exist only to create conflict. Although Christine’s mother dislikes Isaac’s prospects, Christine doesn’t seem to feel the same — until she abruptly does, and abandons him for a photography career in New York. When she returns months later, Mae’s upset that Isaac has married. This disappointment apparently leads to a bitterness that puts a wedge between Christine and Mae and leaves Isaac (played in the present-day storyline by the reliably great Rob Morgan) with regret.
There’s story potential there, but the plot points are poorly seeded, that they feel haphazard, if not a betrayal of the characters. These problems intensify when paired with the present-day plot, which gestures at parallels between Christine and the commitment-phobic Michael. But when characters abruptly start talking about Mae inheriting her mother’s problem, the viewer is left confused. Does Mae care that deeply about her job? If so, why has she never really talked about her work? Why have we rarely seen her at work?
The screenplay’s clunky dialogue doesn’t help. Characters speak in declarations that tell us themes the film never shows. The movie opens with a particularly thudding line from Christine, wishing she could “put as much courage into love as I put into my work.” Not only is the line too blunt to be believed, but it contradicts what we see on screen. We’re often told that Christine is a great photographer, and there are a few scenes of her taking pictures. But most of those photography scenes involve her taking pictures of Isaac (or vice versa, to create the titular photograph), or of Isaac building a darkroom, which leads to a passionate makeout session. At no point does Christine’s work seem divorced from her love, until the character declares that the two are at odds.
The Photograph at its best when it forgets about those plot points, when the lovers stop talking and enjoy the simple intimacy of looking in one another’s eyes. In that way, The Photograph is the most realistic romance movie in a long time.