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Review: In “The Photograph,” Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield take a good, long look at love

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 13, 2020

LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in “The Photograph.” (Universal Pictures / TNS)
LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in “The Photograph.” (Universal Pictures / TNS)
By Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune

The problem with movie trailers is: A) They’re necessary, apparently; B) Too many beans get spilled; and C) Often, a movie without much overt intrigue or plot machinery becomes packaged in a gently deceptive fashion.

This last problem brings us to a film worth seeing. Writer-director Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph” unfolds as a low-key romance starring Issa Rae of the YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl” and HBO’s “Insecure” and the very busy LaKeith Stanfield, lately improving everything from “Sorry to Bother You” to “Atlanta” to the recent “Knives Out.”

As with “The Notebook,” the title memory fragment here offers the narrative a peg on which to hang the story of two guarded individuals learning to love again. Mae works as a curator at the Queens Museum. Her mother, a Louisiana native who moved north with young Mae to become a photographer, has recently passed, leaving behind two long, revealing letters tucked away in a safe deposit box. These are addressed to Mae and her father.

Over on narrative track number two, there’s feature writer Michael, a New Yorker like Mae, currently on assignment in Louisiana. His story subject, given a taciturn grace by the excellent Rob Morgan of “Mudbound” and “Stranger Things,” is an ex-oil rig worker turned crab fisherman.

The walls of his humble home are filled with evocative photographs taken by Mae’s mother, Christina, the woman he once loved. One photo proves the exception: It’s of her, not by her, and the way she regards the camera suggests an untold chapter of a story.

Pursuing that story, Michael heads back to New York (he works for a fabulously prosperous media outlet called the Republic) and arranges a meeting with Mae, who’s putting together a retrospective of her late mother’s work. From there, “The Photograph” plays an artful, subdued game of flashback hopscotch, back and forth from the present-day romance between Mae and Michael to 1980s scenes about Christina. She’s played by Chante Adams from “Roxanne Roxanne,” and she’s subtly terrific.

Screenwriter-director Meghie takes some chances here, as words such as “subdued” and “quiet” indicate. There’s hardly any melodrama. A lot happens off-screen; we hear, for example, about Michael’s ex, who lives in Louisiana, but we never meet her. Back in New York, Mae and Michael get to know each other in leisurely, conversational encounters without the usual montage shortcuts.

As audiences, we’ve become so accustomed to ridiculous, abrupt or plain stupid plot developments; here, it takes a while to realize that “The Photograph” won’t be indulging in any of that. In other words: When two characters get in a car and drive around, there won’t be any sudden car crashes that land anyone in the hospital. (Retroactive spoiler alert.)

Mae can be a somewhat frustrating protagonist – on the page, she threatens to fade away in her own story – but Rae’s warmth keeps her interesting, just as Stanfield’s unpredictable timing keeps his character (romantically impulsive and tough to read) from being a weasel. Meghie had the good sense to cast Lil Rel Howery as Michael’s brother; his improvs keep his co-actors on their toes, you can tell. “Hamilton” alum Jasmine Cephas Jones works in intuitive counterpoint with Rae as Mae’s museum cohort.

“The Photograph” treats all its characters with some decency and understanding in a genre where straw villains and cardboard adversaries typically run rampant. The plaintive, jazz-inflected musical score by Robert Glasper establishes the right vibe and level of drama, which is to say: more like life and less like the movies.

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