For those feeling perpetually single, a romance film is likely the last thing on your to-do list. Seeing two nearly-failed relationships in one film could be too much. Yet Stella Meghie’s (Jean of the Joneses, The Weekend) The Photograph is a refreshing take on how ill-directed familial angst so often stops healthy romantic love right in its tracks.
Mae (Issa Rae) is an assistant curator at the Queen’s Museum who is grieving the death of her mother Christina Eames, a famous photographer who always kept her daughter at a distance. Her sudden death left Mae regretting that she’d never have the opportunity to truly know the ins and outs of who her mom was.
A journalist, Michael (LaKeith Stanfield), reaches out to her inquiring about photographs taken by her late mom. Michael’s reporting leads him to Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan). Eventually it’s revealed that Michael is looking into the life of Christina, and Isaac was a very close friend of hers. A photograph on Isaac’s mantel points Michael in the right direction, to Mae.
Isaac was Christina’s lover when she was growing up in Louisiana. Unlike her neighbors and peers who were living comfortably in their town, Christina wanted more in life, for herself and her work. Christina’s mom disapproved of her not “dating up” and spoke ill of her passion for photography. Her mom’s unfounded and sudden push out of their home was all Christina needed to move to New York and start a new life where her photography could thrive. Unfortunately, in leaving Louisiana, she left her love behind, and did not find the courage to honestly face him ever again, even though she carried a secret that would forever be a reminder of the love she’d walked away from.
As Michael uncovered Christina’s work, he connects with Mae on a deeper level. Mae finds it romantic when he drops in on an event she’s running. His sly confidence could sweep most off their feet, and surely finessed Mae enough to agree to a date that put the two on a path of self-discovery, together.
While their acting was perfectly satisfactory, the chemistry between Rae and Stanfield doesn’t burst at the seams. When intimate, the two seemed content. When Mae learns Michael could potentially still be involved with a former love, there is no maddening and impassioned outburst or high-emotive whirlwind of disagreements that highlight the very real stumbles in any relationship. Their relationship is mellow. But maybe mellow is just fine when you’re suddenly grieving.
The passion in the film lies in Mae’s learning of her mother’s past after she died. This film is about how not facing familial trauma head on can perpetuate unhealthy love in all parts of life, making it that much more difficult to love anyone intimately. Love, romantic or otherwise, is complicated. The Photograph reminds us that familial love is the root of how we love others. Whether it be a lifelong journey or a year’s triumph, digging deep is worth the trek. v