Film & Television

‘The Photograph,’ An Intelligent Love Story, Then and Now

When I look for films to see and write about, my first objective is to find movies that reflect women’s voices: movies by women directors, women screenwriters. Sadly, this isn’t as easy as it sounds or as it should be. There’s a multiplex two towns away that caters to families and even more so (it seems) to teen boys. Right now, they have multiple screens devoted to the Star Wars film that was released at Christmas, Jumanji, Dolittle, Call of the Wild, and Sonic the Hedgehog. (Yes, Sonic is on three, count ’em, three, screens.) 

For better or worse, none of these titles was directed or written by women.

But wait! One of the 21 screens is playing a film called The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie. The Photograph had a much smaller budget than any of the blockbusters listed above and a title that sounds a bit too much like a Nicholas Sparks novel (unlike many of our readers, I’m not a fan of The Notebook). But it was really my only option, so I dutifully drove half an hour, purchased my ticket, purchased my popcorn, and settled in for what I feared would be 100 minutes of sappy romance.

And, you know what? I’m so glad I did! Because, regardless of my assumptions about the title, I really loved it.

The Photograph, which is decidedly romantic, but not at all sappy, takes place in New York and New Orleans, today and in the 1980s. It tells the story of two women: Christina, a celebrated photographer, and Mae, her grown daughter, a curator at the Queens Museum. Christina has recently passed away and Mae is dealing with it on multiple levels. Professionally, she’s putting together a retrospective of her mother’s work. Personally, she’s looking for signs that her mother, work-obsessed and emotionally aloof, loved her.

Meanwhile, Michael, a New York reporter, is working on a piece about how the fishing industry around New Orleans is surviving after Katrina and the BP oil spill. He meets an older crab fisherman, Isaac, and becomes interested in the photography of the man’s one-time lover . . . you probably guessed, Christina. Isaac, a widower now, wishes he had followed Christina when her ambitions took her to New York and out of his life. 

“I let her leave,” he tells Michael, “Thirty years later, I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Michael returns to New York and goes to see Mae, and from the moment they meet, the chemistry between them is palpable. It certainly helps that the film’s two stars, Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, are stunning; Rae, especially, lights up the screen every time she smiles. We are privy to their awkward first encounters, as well as the certainty each feels that there’s something deeper drawing them together. They’re both intelligent and successful — and conveniently, if temporarily, single — and they both marvel at how quickly, and passionately, they’re falling for each other. “What was it like?” Mae’s friend (Hamilton‘s Jasmine Cephas Jones) asks. “It felt like we’d kissed before.”  

Meghie deftly moves between Mae and Michael’s contemporary love story and Christina and Isaac’s three decades ago. (Chanté Adams and Y’lan Noel, as young Christina and Isaac, are every bit as alluring as their costars.) Isaac is happy with their life together and asks Christina, on a regular basis, to marry him. Christina feels trapped by their rural Louisiana world and longs for the chance to make something of herself. She loves but leaves him.

Mae and Michael are clearly meant to be, but there are obstacles. Michael may be relocating, and Mae is worried that, like her mother, she may not be capable of lasting love. Much of the narrative is driven by a very long letter Christina has left for her, which also solves a family mystery in an utterly predictable but entirely forgivable way.



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