‘The Photograph’: Sweet and Sentimental First Act Sparks More Romance Than Its Soapy Ending

“I wish I was as good at love as I am at working,” a photographer named Christina Eames, who has just recently moved to New York to pursue her dream, says into the camera. A baby cries off screen. The date on the video recording reads: May 1, 1989.

Back in the present, an eager reporter named Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield) flies to Louisiana to speak to a man named Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan). A series of photographs, all taken by the same woman, Christina Eames (Chante Adams), save one, are framed on the wall. The only photo Christina didn’t take is the one of herself. Following up on his story, Michael meets Christina’s daughter, Mae (Issa Rae), a curator at the Queen’s museum who is putting together a gallery of her mother’s work. Michael and Mae spark an almost immediate chemistry.

The Photograph” is your prototypical Valentine’s Day weekend release, a sweet, sentimental, sometimes soapy romance that’s not especially concerned with being a particularly dense time out at the movies. While it breaks no new ground, has a several underdeveloped characters, and is the kind of film that’s more food for heart than for your brain, there are enough endearing moments and genuinely warm dialog exchanges in the movie that its flaws stand out less than one might expect at the outset, but as its two parallel narratives converge, the surface level the screenplay’s agenda starts to become apparent.

Writer/director Stella Meghie’s film primarily takes place in the present, but intermittently flashes back to the 1980s, to tell the origin of the titular photograph in question, where Christina’s mother, Violet (Marsha Stephanie Blake) looks down, disapprovingly, on her daughters relationship with young Isaac (Y’lan Noel), almost as if she’s trying to push her smitten daughter away, loudly expressing concerns that photography is just a hobby she can afford, as she has her mother as a support system, but there’s no way she could ever make a living off it out in the real world. Flashing forward to the present, Michael drags his workplace friend, Andy (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a screening of a French film at the Mae’s museum, as an excuse to pay his new crush a visit. When the two lock eyes before taking their seats, it’s clear that neither of them will be paying much attention to the movie.

Afterward Michael and Mae start seeing each other, their first date being one of the highlights of the film, as the jaded lovers discuss being unsure how you’re allowed to act on a first date — how commanding, vulnerable or funny you’re allowed to be — while sharing their hip-hop preferences, arguing over Drake, Kendrick, and Kayne. Meanwhile, back in the ‘80s, Mae’s mother threatens to kick her daughter out of the house after taking a road trip to New Orleans with Isaac and their friends. 

Though, almost every time the main narrative starts to gain traction, the film flashes back to its poorly developed genesis. One of the notable issues with the dramatic progression of the film becomes apparent as the flashbacks continue is Christina’s mother is never treated as anything more than an obstacle, wagging her finger disapprovingly without displaying any nuanced traits that define her as a person, let alone redeemable qualities of character. One of the primary themes of the movie is how perspective on life, family and love, specifically, changes dramatically with time and distance, yet the scenes with Mae’s grandmother never paint her as anything but unfair to Christina, while the scenes in the present find characters explaining why we should find it easier to forgive. 

Another issue that the ending draws attention to is how quickly everything initially falls together with Mae and Michael. The plotting arguably progresses far too neatly, but at least the movie pokes fun at its own sappiness more than once, self-aware that it puts more stock into smitten sentiment than deftly examining complex human connection. For all the embers that briefly spark to life, the dramatic circle of the film ultimately falls flat due to being front-loaded with sweet moments that never pay off as strongly as that initial spark. “The Photograph” has some genuine romance going for it, but the fire starts to fizzle once the origin of the photo eventually impedes on the present day romance. 

The Photograph” opens Feb. 14 in theaters nationwide.