The first thing you notice about “The Photograph,” a sappy but earnest love story, is its sense of place. Every room is imbued with its own unique feel. A loft in downtown New York feels spacious and cold. An Upper West Side townhouse inhabited by a young family is bright and inviting. The working-class shack in rural Louisiana is drab, designed in muted yellows and browns. This attention to visual detail, and how it evokes a world with a few simple choices of color and light, elevates “The Photograph” from a carbon copy of a Nicholas Sparks novel to something a little richer and deeper.
“The Photograph” is a mystery, a love story, and a coming-of-age story, but it never commits to any genre, instead weaving them into a gentle crowd-pleaser that offers minimal rewards. Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield) is a reporter doing a story on Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), a Louisiana fisherman whose business has been affected by extreme weather. After Michael sees an unusual photograph on his mantle, Isaac opens up to him about a woman from his past, Christine, a great photographer who he loved but who left him to pursue her art in New York.
She had a daughter in New York, Mae (Issa Rae), who we meet as a grown woman in the aftermath of her mother’s death. As Michael pursues the story, their paths cross, and they instantly connect. As we chronicle their brief courtship, we also look back on Christine and Isaac, and wonder if Mae will make the same mistakes her mother did. The action cuts between the two timelines, with a soft implication that the sins of the mother will be visited upon the daughter. Christine struggles to accept Isaac’s love, putting her desperation to get out of Louisiana and forge her own path first. In the present day, it’s Michael, with a job waiting for him in London, who is tempted to leave Mae.
The themes play out concurrently, but this narrative device fails by itself to convey what it aims to: the deep complexities of love, grief, and the mistakes that are passed down to each generation. Each storyline is reasonably engaging on its own terms – although I enjoyed the Louisiana romance, with its elegant sparseness, more – but they struggle to connect with each other until the third act, when Michael and Mae find themselves back in New Orleans together, making a crucial life decision in unknowingly the same spot that her parents did. It’s a moment that hints at the film that might have been, one in which there is a single world that spans generations, making our insecurities and flaws seem less consequential than they are in the moment. The film only skims the surface of that idea.
A romantic drama can survive such flaws if the chemistry is right, but the sparks never fly between the two modern-day lovers, despite the efforts of the actors. As the cool and composed Michael, Stanfield is the bigger revelation. He has earned a reputation as a transformative actor in projects as disparate as “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You,” but here he leans into the mold of an old-fashioned movie star. Stanfield is rock-solid on the outside, but he draws you in with a hint of vulnerability. In a different era, he would have looked great with a cigarette hanging from his lips.
Rae’s performance is less effective, but she had little to work with and, unlike Stanfield, had no archetype to fall back on. The film substitutes simplistic psychology for character building, and the contours of her character are never delineated. The director knows how to stage a Romantic Moment, aided by that wonderful cinematography and thoughtful production design, but the pleasures feel shallow because the people never become realized. “The Photograph” is set in a world that looks our own, but the characters are just ghosts, long-gone figures in a faded picture.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue