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.

Girl in the Plastic Bubble

Everything, Everything

by Hope Madden

One special girl + a solitary, attentive, very cute boy + contrivance that keeps them apart = every single adolescent drama made in the last decade.

Director Stella Meghie can do that math. For Everything, Everything, she works from the YA novel by Nicola Yoon, adapted for the screen by the adequate emotional manipulator J. Mills Goodloe (Best of Me, The Age of Adaline).

The film updates that Boy in a Plastic Bubble TV movie John Travolta made back in the day, here with a perky adolescent girl named Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) whose rare immune deficiency keeps her locked away inside her sterile home.

Then Dreamboat Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door.

Meghie and her cast deserve credit because their film has a sweet if utterly artificial charm to it. The handful of fantasy sequences set inside Maddy’s architecture models are appealing, as is the awkward and innocent chemistry between the leads.

Not one human being on earth has ever been this wholesome and adorable, but as YA lit flicks go, it could be much worse.

Tragedy looms darkly over most young adult romances – like a watered down Nicolas Sparks movie. Maddy’s ailment keeps death always in the periphery, but the film zigs when you think it will zag.

Meghie keeps almost everything restrained, which is both the film’s blessing and curse. Too often in movies of this ilk, the drama becomes so soapy as to be intolerable. Maddy’s coming-of-age choices feel more self-empowering than love struck, and her easygoing, forgiving nature keeps the tone just this side of angsty.

Thank you.

On the other hand, when the narrative takes a bizarre – almost diabolical – turn, that laid back approach feels neutered. Real rage is called for. Police intervention. A good slap, anyway.

But Meghie doesn’t indulge our lust for drama, which would be admirable if her film weren’t so bland.

Verdict-2-5-Stars