Stella Meghie returns to the silver screen to write and direct a love story that exhibits a tale of raw emotions, pure bliss, and eternal regrets. “The Photograph” tells a dual-sided story on how the inherited traits we receive from our parents alter our own perspectives on life. Meghie pens a unique story on the surface that gives the film enough space to separate itself from the droves of other romance films on the market, but when peeling back the layers, it fails in its execution as it suffers from the many pitfalls that plague the genre. Every character ranging from the major to the minor are bland and cookie cutter but are instantly elevated by the cast and their loving performances. At times, “The Photograph” may lose its focus, but it tends to find its way back with help from the vibrant joy exuded from both the cast and the great soundtrack that echoes through every scene.
“The Photograph” tells a cross-generational love story about the desires we all express, and the journey one will take to embrace their true feelings, while warning of the deep seeded regrets that others encounter as the passage of time escapes them. We are first introduced to a young journalist named, Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) who is in the midst of writing a story about a well known photographer; Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). Michael visits one of Christina’s earliest associates with the intention of interviewing him for his current piece. That associate winds up being Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), an early romantic partner of Christina before she took leave to New York. During their discussion, Michael stumbles upon some of Christina’s old work and is immediately captivated by its brilliance, prompting his next course of action. Michael returns home to New York and meets with Christina’s daughter, Mae Morton (Issa Rae) who has discovered a pair of letters written by her mother. Mae reads her mother’s letter but grows confused as she fails to realize why she never felt comfortable enough to tell her life story while she was alive. When Mae and Michael finally meet back in New York, it is love at first sight and the two are drawn to one another straight away. Throughout the course of the film, both Mae and Michael go through the annals of Christina’s life in an attempt to discover who she was, while doing their best to avoid making the same mistakes of the past.
The narrative found within “The Photograph” is told through two distinct periods; the past which features Chanté Adams and Y'lan Noel (Story B), and the present which features Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield (Story A). All of the marketing leading up to the film’s release explicitly showcased these plot details which made it appear as though that the film would take a different approach to separate itself from the dozens of other romantic films released every year. Unfortunately, the unique plot device the film utilizes is criminally under used. When the film opens up we are introduced to Christina Eames and Isaac Jefferson who are two young lovers living their mundane lives in Louisiana. Christina has a desire to leave the small pond of Louisiana to travel to the ocean that is New York (she actually has a character motivation). Of course, Isaace does not wish to uproot and change his entire life for Christina’s career, but he still wishes to make things work. The dynamic of Christina and Isaac’s relationship makes for an intriguing story all on its own. Nonetheless, Story B feels as though it is only used when the pacing during Story A hits a wall, or there can be no natural transition to the next scene. This completely does a disservice to the overall narrative as both Chanté Adams and Y'lan Noel shine in their roles. The main plot of “The Photograph” can be found in Story A where we witness Mae and Michael come together because of a common interest, that being Christina, her life and her work. In Story A the roles have flipped, as Michael strives to enhance his career while Mae wishes to take things at a steady pace to uncover the mystery of her mother’s life. The major issues do not stem from the acting, the characters, or even the directing; my major grievances can be solely found in the writing of the plot. “The Photograph” employs an over glorified gimmick to bolster the main narrative that still suffers from feeling like every other romantic drama since the dawn of storytelling. We see a romantic spark light up that slowly explodes into real love as one character fully commits while the other fishes for reasons not to; they laugh, they cry, they have fun, they even fight; it checks every necessary box of the genre. “The Photograph” effectively attempts to tell two different interesting stories within its hour and forty-five runtime, but fails to execute on telling either of these stories as the strand that connects them is not powerful enough to hold.
“The Photograph” puts together a cast that deliver their material in an enjoyable manner making it seem as though everyone was having fun on set. There are certainly standouts amongst the cast but let us first discuss the two main leads, Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield. Rae and Standfield take center stage and put on a display that shows a modern day love story. However, their love never truly feels genuine or as fully realized as it should. The two spend most of their time sharing moments together that are not exactly romantic. Most of their interactions are quite awkward, but I personally found that to be an endearing quality of the film as it refuses to paint a fairy tale romance between the two; humans are awkward and love is strange. At times, Stanfield seems to be presenting his emotions forward as Rae holds back and feels distant while unengaged; once again, this is no fault of the film as it makes perfect sense given the narrative, the only problem is that during intimate moments the vibrations feel completely off. Nevertheless, Rae and Stanfield are a powerful pair that offer enough to give the film much needed life. Despite Rae and Stanfield’s decent performances, there is no one who commands the stage greater than Rob Morgan. Playing the present day Isaac Jefferson, he has a limited time on screen with minimal dialogue, and in spite of that Morgan still works wonders with what he is given. The many regrets and heavy pain his character has lived with throughout the many years since Christina’s departure is on full display when Morgan enters the frame as he perfectly encapsulates the emotions anyone could relate to. Jeferson’s story bears a ton of emotional weight, and Morgan remains diligent as he does so much with so little which is a true testament to his outstanding talent.
“The Photograph” is a film that at its core has a fascinating story buried within. Sadly, the film tries its best to juggle two different stories by connecting them with various emotional threads that unfortunately cloud the overall plot and make both individual storylines fall flat. The saving graces that carry this film clearly come from the good performances each cast member contributes, along with the stellar score composed by Robert Glasper, and the epic soundtrack that will make you nod your head and tap your feet. “The Photograph” stands as a great example of a film with an amazing concept that struggles to execute due to the many problems that overwhelm it. This is a romance film that does its job at being just another Valentine’s Day date night flick that will be lost to time by many and remembered by few.