Pretty as a Picture

The Photograph

by Hope Madden

Tis the season, and as Valentine’s-aimed romantic dramedies go, the blandly titled The Photograph could be worse.

Issa Rae (Insecure) leads the cross-generational love story as Mae, NYC museum curator trying to process her grief and an incredibly long letter, both hers now because of her estranged mother Christina’s recent death.

Christina (a solid Chanté Adams), mainly unveiled via flashback, broke from her own difficult mother as well as the love of her life back in Louisiana years ago to follow a career as a photographer in New York.

As Mae learns some painfully obvious truths by way of Christina’s letter, writer/director Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything) weaves two romances together across time to look at the wages of a woman’s ambition and the ways we relive our parents’ mistakes.

There’s plenty to like here, and Meghie’s film certainly looks like a dreamy romance waiting to happen. Scenes are beautifully lit, gorgeously filmed and romantically scored. You can’t fault the casting, either.

LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) has an easy chemistry with Rae as the journalist interested in Christina’s life, and Meghie surrounds her leads with vibrant supporting characters. Lil Rel Howery, Courtney B. Vance and an underused Kelvin Harrison Jr. all round out the ensemble, adding much needed life.

Rob Morgan (Mudbound, Last Black Man in San Francisco, Just Mercy), wonderful as always, steals his few scenes with a restrained, mournful presence that enriches an insubstantial story. There’s a ragged weariness to his character, one that’s all the more poignant when offset by the buoyancy of Y’lan Noel’s turn as the younger version of the same character.

Meghie has assembled a fine cast, she just doesn’t give them enough to do. Neither love story gets enough room to grow and Mae’s arc feels forced and rushed. Because Christina is gone before the cameras role, Meghie handles Mae’s conflict with her mother exclusively through clunky dialog, and the usually reliable Rae has trouble conveying any convincing inner turmoil.

For a low stakes romance, The Photograph is a very pretty picture.

Let’s Get Small

Little

by Hope Madden

Based on a concept by 14 year-old executive producer and star Marsai Martin (Black-ish), the comeuppance comedy Little flips the script on the Tom Hanks Eighties adventure in manhood, Big.

We open with Martin as Jordan Sanders at 13, a science nerd who takes a chance at the talent show to win over the Windsor Middle School student body. When she fails, she pins her dreams on one day being an adult who bullies everyone else before they can bully her.

Flash forward 25 years. Jordan (now Regina Hall) is a monster boss, terrorizing the developers at her tech firm and making life especially miserable for her assistant, April (Insecure‘s Issa Rae). Can some carbs and a little magic return Jordan to her adolescent form so she can unlearn the lesson that sent her life in the wrong direction?

It’s a slight story, penned from Martin’s idea by director Tina Gordon and co-writer Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip). The two choose not to represent bullying as anything other than a fact of life to be tolerated, but they do layer in some silly fun and spots of surprising humor, mainly thanks to the strength of the two leads.

Rae charms throughout the film. Her smile and energy shine, and she offers natural chemistry with both adult and teen versions of her boss. Rae brings a reluctant but earnest sense of compassion to the role, and her comic timing is spot on.

Martin is the film’s real star. She carries scenes with a clever knack for portraying an adult brain inside a child’s form. The physical performance amuses, but it’s really the way she delivers sly lines with a saucy look or toss of the head that brings a chuckle.

It would be tough for this film to be more predictable, but several side characters—a social services agent (Rachel Dracht) and dreamy 7th grade teacher (Justin Hartley) work wonders with their odd characters and limited screen time.

The plotting is pretty sloppy and at no point does the comedy draw more than a chuckle, but Little is an amusing if forgettable waste of time. Martin is someone to remember, though.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HdNhpeI1g4





No Weapon, No Weakness

The Hate U Give

by George Wolf

The Hate U Give becomes one of the year’s better films not because it elevates an oft-maligned genre (though that fresh air blast certainly doesn’t hurt), but instead for how it wraps troubling, vital societal issues around an absorbing family drama.

Adapted from the best selling Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, the film slaps you with reality right from the opening, when a commanding father (Russell Hornsby) is giving his young children “the talk” – not about sex, but about how to survive when they are pulled over by the police. You may see this as either familiar or eyebrow-raising, and that is precisely the point.

Like so many YA dramas, THUG is anchored by a special young girl. Here, she’s Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), but Starr’s specialness isn’t a device that panders, it’s one that is intelligently used to illustrate two very different Americas.

She lives in a Georgia “hood” with her family, but attends a private Catholic school in the ‘burbs, and not, as her mother (Regina Hall) says, “because she needs to learn how to pray.”

On the ride home after a weekend party in her neighborhood, Starr becomes the only witness to the fatal police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil (Detroit‘s Algee Smith). She’s reluctant to come forward for a variety of reasons (all logical), and as the pressure builds from different sides, reactions to the killing bring the contrasts between Starr’s two worlds into clear, illuminating focus.

Director George Tillman, Jr. (Notorious) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly passed away just weeks ago) craft a thoughtful balance as the narrative progresses, cutting deeper via an impressive restraint that holds until the final few minutes hit a more tidy, didactic vein.

But when this film works, which is most of the time, it works wonderfully. Through Starr’s eyes (and yes, narration) we navigate heady terrain: white privilege, systemic oppression, Black Lives Matter, all lives matter, victim blaming, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation and liberal guilt. And Stenberg, leading a strong ensemble which also includes Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae and Common, rises to the material after some cookie-cutter YA fare (The Darkest Minds, Everything, Everything) with her best performance to date, moving Starr believably through grief, confusion, anger, defiance and hard decisions.

It’s character development that respects both the character and the audience. And in trusting that YA audience with some bitter pills, The Hate U Give becomes a required dose for the rest of us.