de facto film reviews 3 stars

Valentine’s Day has usually been a mixed bag in terms of quality romantic films at the box office. With the highly profitable but much maligned “Fifty Shades” trilogy and 2010’s ensemble film “Valentine’s Day”, the holiday has not been known for its high-art releases. Although Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph”, the latest from mega-Producer Will Packer (“Think Like a Man”, “Girls Trip”), isn’t high-art in any respect, it’s still a solid romantic drama that makes for a prime date night movie.

Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) is a journalist working on a story about a late photographer, Christina (Chante Adams, “Roxanne Roxanne”). When he meets Christina’s daughter, Mae (Issa Rae) a museum curator in NYC, the two begin to fall for one another despite their ever-growing paths. Michael also comes in contact with a former flame of Christina’s played by the ever-reliable Rob Morgan (“Mudbound”, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”). “The Photograph” ultimately splits its narrative up between two plot threads, with the modern day love story focusing on Stanfield and Rae’s character’s and flashbacks to Rae’s mother in the late 80’s and her complicated love story with the younger version of Rob Morgan’s character played by Y’lan Noel (“The First Purge”). Both storylines begin to mirror each other as past wrongs seemingly threaten to repeat themselves.

As one of the more compelling on-screen romances of the past couple years, LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae are truly magnetic together. Both actors have gifted comedic talents, but here they’re both vulnerable, giving some terrific dramatic work. Stanfield in particular is as suave and charismatic as he’s ever been. Chante Adams is equally strong, deftly delivering some of the films most wrenching moments. Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out”) and Teyonah Parris (“Chi-Raq”) provide solid comedic moments as Michael’s loving brother and sister-in-law. Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Waves”) and Chelsea Peretti (“Game Night”) round out the cast in their bit parts.

Writer/Director Stella Meghie largely avoids tiring melodrama for authenticity. There’s actual truth to the films portrayal of past regrets and the idea of what could’ve been. Even when it does “The Photograph” does occasionally run into cliche territory, it rings far more true than you would expect. Meghie treats all of the films characters as human beings as opposed to one-dimensional stereotypes. Meghie also does an exceptional job at creating a vibrant atmosphere that feels warm and inviting. You not only feel the chemistry between the leads, but the warmth in the environment. The cinematography by Mark Schwartzbard, although reminiscent of films like “Moonlight” and “Queen & Slim”, has its own distinctive style and is often gorgeous to look at. The jazzy score by Robert Glasper also adds a comforting presence to the films coziness.

The biggest downfall of “The Photograph” comes from the rather loose scripting. The uneven plotting occasionally gets in the way of the films sense of urgency which tends to detract from both intersecting plot threads. The emotional punch is ultimately muffled due to the lack of focus between both stories. Running at 106 minutes, it feels as though “The Photograph” needed a few more scenes in each story to fully realize its potential.

“The Photograph” falls short of reaching greatness, but it’s still a much better than expected romantic drama thanks in large part to its exceptional cast, strong direction and authentic portrayal of struggling relationships. It’s a mainstream romantic drama done well, which is something surprising lacking in today’s culture.