The Photograph’s marketing team is incredibly smart. Not only did they time its release to Valentine’s Day, much of the marketing focuses on promoting its two hot, rising stars Issa Rae (Insecure) and LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out). The trailers sell it as a touching love story, perfect for a Valentine’s Day date movie in the vein of Nicholas Sparks.
Thankfully, The Photograph is much better than your average Nicholas Sparks endeavor. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty low bar. While Rae and Stanfield put their all into a film light on dialogue, The Photograph is a serviceable romance that fizzles out much more than it ignites.
Issa Rae is Mae, a curator at the Queens Museum who recently lost her distant mother to cancer and is left a very long, handwritten letter to read from her mom, explaining why she’s been so distant all these years. LaKeith Stanfield is Mike, a New York journalist for the fictional online outlet The Republic, doing a story on a man, Isaac, in Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana, a man that just happens to reveal a story of a long-lost love, a girl named Christina (Chante Adams), who left him to become a photographer in New York. I mean, do you even need to be told where this is going?
Mike and Mae have their meet cute, with plenty of bashful looks and nervous smiles. It’s enchanting to watch, until we’re torn away into flashbacks explaining Mae’s mother Christina’s love story with the young Isaac. Torn between two stories, neither one is allowed to develop beyond surface level.
Light on dialogue, the film is languid, letting lingering looks play out over rustic Louisiana kitchens and sleek New York apartments that take a page from Nancy Meyers’ playbook. Equipped with a metaphorical wall around her heart, Rae tries to play Mae’s looks as understated and mysterious, but it often comes across as wooden instead of subdued. The naturally bubbly personality that shines in Insecure is blunted, a handicap for someone usually so charming. Stanfield, a more mellow personality, fares better in conveying a slow burn romance, at turns shy and forward.
With such a slow pace, The Photograph eschews plot development for sensual visuals and a great soundtrack. It makes for an enjoyable watch, but its hard to ignore the plethora of cliches and contrivances. Split between two love stories, we don’t get enough time with either couple and thus don’t feel heavily invested in either one.
The Photograph is a passable Valentine’s date movie but it fails to become anything worthy of a second date.