There are certain expectations with romantic movies opening on Valentine’s Day: that they offer some cheese, or heat, or maybe soapy drama; that, whatever their methods, they aim straight for your feelings. The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie, looks like it would fit squarely in this mode – the film’s poster frames its two stars, Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, in classic black-and-white, headed for a kiss. But looks, especially in photographs, can be deceiving, a fitting image for a beautifully filmed movie with a confoundingly, frustratingly underdeveloped story.
The Photograph actually begins with a different love story: a doomed one in the 1980s between Isaac (Insecure’s Y’lan Noel), a crab fisherman in coastal Louisiana, and the young, stir-crazy Christina Eames (Chante Adams), hungry to leave and make her name in photography. In the present, Michael Block (Stanfield), a dissatisfied journalist from New York, travels to Louisiana for a story on something pertaining to life after the Deepwater Horizon spill. He interviews Isaac, now bald and wizened and still keeping a photo of Christina, a successful photographer, on the mantel. Enticed by Christina’s come-hither stare in the photo, Michael looks up her name in New York, and stumbles upon her estranged daughter, Mae (Rae). You see where this is going.
Except, curiously, the film keeps the stakes frustratingly low. Michael and Mae – both single and, we are told by their respective sidekicks, wary of settling down or putting careers on the back-burner – immediately and obviously like each other (cue long stares, something Stanfield seems to know is his speciality). Both have good jobs and New York apartments, stylish wardrobes and at least one confidante. The only roadblock is their own hesitancy, played out in lackluster scenes in which they talk about maybe continuing to get to know each other and their preferences for Drake or Kanye or Kendrick.
Those conversations may be accurate to millennial dating today, but don’t make for compelling Valentine’s cinema; the movie’s attempts to frame drama in ignored calls and Michael’s musing that “maybe we’re not supposed to be good at staying” feel frustratingly expositional, not pivotal. Percussive jazz music often stands in for any emotional turmoil the characters are hinted at feeling but barely show on their faces. We’re offered a couple of conversations between them, a jarringly edited love scene, and then expected to believe in their life and career-altering love, even as they both balk at doing anything to thwart small-scale life obstacles.
The script is distractingly underdeveloped. The Photograph wants to tell a generational story of learning from the past to prioritize love (which, unfortunately, swerves too closely to admonishing a woman for prioritizing her career too much) but given that you already know how both are going to end from the beginning (you learn in the first scene that Christina leaves Isaac for New York, and there’s never doubt that Mae and Michael will do … something), the plot merely fizzles. When things do heat up, especially between Michael and Mae, it’s stilted – the dialogue swings quickly from statement (Michael is considering a job in London) to baldly stated plot point (“What does that mean for us?”).
It’s easy viewing – in that case, it does its job. It’s hardly unwatchable, despite a distinct lack of chemistry between Stanfield and Rae. (Michael’s friendship with aspiring intern Andy, Kelvin Harrison Jr, and Andy’s flirtation with Mae’s sidekick Rachel, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, have way more spark than the leads.) Lil Rel Howery of Get Out and Teyonah Parris provide genuine comic relief as the older married siblings who will put your friends at ease with just the right spin on embarrassing moments, and also seem to represent the picture of “settled down” that Michael is rebelling against. The abundance of talent and some snappy banter add much needed pulse to a film which prioritizes looks over heart, but it can’t save a script that’s sketch-deep.