Movie review: Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are believable as the future first lady and president at the beginning of their romance.
Being the third wheel on someone else’s first date is rarely as delightful as it is in “Southside With You,” Richard Tanne’s charming film about two 20-something lawyers spending some time together outside of the office in 1989 Chicago. It is, at heart, a long conversation — think “Before Sunrise” crossed with “My Dinner with Andre.” And, because those two lawyers are named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), it’s the beginning of a story that we already know. (Spoiler alert: The date, ultimately, goes well.)
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Southside With You,’ with Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway. Written and directed by Richard Tanne. 84 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference. Several theaters.
Tanne knows full well that this isn’t just any date (“Barack O-what-a?” asks Michelle’s puzzled father, reminding all of us of when we first heard the name), and the film is sprinkled with reminders of what these two people will become: Barack giving a charismatic speech at a community meeting; Michelle breaking into an impromptu dance with a little girl; Barack’s casual “Maybe” to Michelle’s equally casual question about his future, “Politics?”
But most of what happens is the unremarkable, yet pleasantly tingly stuff of a promising first date. There’s plenty of activity: an art exhibit, sandwiches in the park, that community meeting, drinks, a movie (“Do the Right Thing”), ice cream, one sweet kiss and a few lingering smiles as they contemplate — from armchairs back in their own quiet homes — what might happen next. There’s lots of talk about their families, their frustrations at work (particularly Michelle, who struggles with the weight of being black and female in a mostly white male firm), their favorite Stevie Wonder albums, their childhoods, their dreams. And through it all, as they wander the city on that warm summer’s day, Michelle insists that they’re not on a date. (“We work together. It’s inappropriate.”)
Sawyers (who looks a lot like a young Barack Obama) and Sumpter (who doesn’t look much like Michelle Obama, but makes us believe that she does) have a tricky task here as actors: They’re playing youthful variants on people we came to know in midlife, and they’re believable in every frame. Watch him, gazing at her through a cigarette haze as she earnestly tells him that he needs to forgive his absent father (the camera’s on him, though she’s speaking), and you see the end of a laid-back date and the beginning of a love story. It’s a sweet-natured, gentle film that might remind more than a few watchers of a special date in their own life, long ago.
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