There’s so little genuine, starry-eyed, you-had-me-at-hello romance in American movies today that when a new love story pops up, it’s hard not to root for it. That’s the case with “The Photograph,” about parallel affairs of the heart. One is hindered by ambition and miscommunication while the other suffers from familiar fears of commitment. Movies like this tell us that falling in love is easy — cue the thunderbolt looks, passionate kisses and surging orchestration — but if it really were that simple, there wouldn’t be much to tell, so also bring on the agonies, tempests and tears.
When you meet Mae (Issa Rae), she’s in mourning. Her mother, Christina, a distinguished photographer and rather less capable mother, has recently died, leaving Mae — a New York museum curator — bereft, confused and more than a bit resentful. Christina has also left Mae a pair of letters, including a confessional one that soon becomes a portal to the past. In the magical way of some romances, around the same time, a New York photographer, Michael (a sensational Lakeith Stanfield), learns about Christina while researching a story in Louisiana that leads him to a former fisherman, Isaac (Rob Morgan, excellent), who knew her.
It isn’t long before Mae and Michael meet back in New York (there’s an undercurrent of destiny here), setting the story on its bifurcated way. The sparks fly fast and persuasively — Rae and Stanfield make sense right away — and you’re soon cozying up with the couple while they share stories and increasingly heated looks in a dimly lit restaurant. The writer-director Stella Meghie understands that you want to see these two beautiful people get together, and she smoothly delivers on your own romantic (and romance genre) longings. There’s glamour, banter, clinking glasses, searching looks and even one of those crashing storms that echo internal squalls.
Meghie does a nice job early with Mae and Michael, filling in their respective lives with precise, enriching details, from the art on the walls to their teasing conversations about music (Drake vs. Kendrick Lamar). Each lover comes with a sidekick, a family to lean on and a lived-in world. Michael works for a magazine; Mae gazes through a loupe at a museum. Courtney B. Vance appears now and then as Mae’s father, dispensing calm truths and advice, wrapping her in a blanket of love. Other comforts, as well as a vision of the couple’s possible future, are offered by Michael’s brother and sister-in-law (a tartly matched Lil Rel Howery and Teyonah Parris), and their kids.
There’s enough that’s right here, most crucially the two leads, that you want Meghie to dig deeper into Mae and Michael’s lives. Instead, she puts their love story into unsatisfying play with the romance that bloomed years earlier between the young Christina (Chanté Adams) and Isaac (Y’Lan Noel). Repeatedly, the movie shifts to Louisiana once upon a time, where Christina and Isaac pull closer despite the usual obstacles.
That happens too often in “The Photograph,” which consistently builds and undercuts its own narrative momentum. By setting Christina and Isaac against Mae and Michael, Meghie has latched onto an oft-visited conceit about the past — that it informs the future and our capacity for love — but she never manages to make the older couple worthy of the time they consume. With her cinematographer and production team, Meghie creates a convincingly inhabited world for them, but not a dramatically involving one.
It’s hard not to wish Meghie had cut loose lyrically more often, ditching some of the talk (especially in the past) to express the story’s emotions in more purely visual terms. In one of the headiest moments, Mae and Michael visit the same New Orleans nightclub that Christina and Isaac traveled to decades earlier, a return that creates a kind of metaphysical bond between the couples. As the sensuously prowling camera follows the couples through the club, the jeweled hues of each woman’s dress gleam like a beacon, and you shiver.
But it’s Stanfield who offers the most unexpected and sustained pleasures here, and his work is a revelation. For the past few years, he has been building a career not just to watch, but to follow in movies like “Sorry to Bother You” and the show “Atlanta.” With his sleepy, sexy eyes and laid-back physicality — loose-limbed, confident — he has been a reliably comic performer; here, he proves he can break hearts, too. He doesn’t simply show you a man losing and finding himself, he elevates Rae, whose appealing performance deepens when they share the frame. When he looks at her, you don’t just see love, you also feel it.
“The Photograph,” with Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr. Written and directed by Stella Meghie. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sexuality. Multiple theaters.