Conflict is at the heart of every great piece of cinema. It is the architecture of storytelling–how a character interacts with conflicts creates plot. So what happens when a story has almost none?
LaKeith Stanfield, plays Michael and Issa Rae plays Mae. Both are upper class African American New Yorkers slowly falling in love while discovering things about their past–family, history, etc. The film concurrently tells this story while telling the story of Mae’s parents. Theoretically this would put the film in a good position to comment on racial conflicts of the past on the backdrop of these young people falling in love.
But the film is too low energy to give nourishment to the romance it thinks it’s offering us. It is clearly shooting to create a slow burn, however, it appears that the film doesn’t understand that slow burn doesn’t mean no conflict. The film falls apart and becomes a series of well-acted scenes of tasteless romance.
The spark, the connection, and the energetic desire that we lose ourselves in with romance movies is simply not present in “The Photograph”. The themes of self-discovery, liberation, and upheaving trauma of the past to discover oneself are written down on paper, but not painted onto the screen. The fruity pop the film is looking for it cannot achieve.
It’s not that the scenes we want of lovers finding each other isn’t presented, it’s when one reaches for it, their hand closes on thin air. When Michael and Mae kiss for the first time, the scene is substance. Where the problem comes down to is the screenplay, which doesn’t elevate or do service the kind of love the film is trying to capture.
Presentation is everything nowadays, with streaming companies sucking up every bland property that they can get. Without a unique voice, a film like this will get sucked into the depths of the corporate streaming rabbit hole. The film is harmless and the intent is there, but it doesn’t stimulate itself to reach for something bigger than itself.
From the beginning, “The Photograph” feels aimless, wandering around the hall of fame of great romance movies, taking from every one of them but never doing its own thing. Great actors and wasted potential is what “The Photograph” ends up being.