Tuesday, August 30, 2016

[Review] Southside With You

Here's a modern biopic that is so well-made that it probably shouldn't even be called a biopic. Inspired by Barack and Michelle Obama's very first date, Southside With You is a lovely, moving portrait about finding that special someone, even if the first impression is rocky.

It's the summer of 1989, and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and her colleague--some guy named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) link up to attend a city council meeting. Michelle ardently claims it's not a date, but Barack lightheartedly jokes about not being so convinced. In fact, in addition to the meeting, he's got a couple of plans up his sleeve--like a museum trip and lunch in the park, all leading up to a screening of Spike Lee's buzzing Do the Right Thing.

The whole film takes place over the course of one day, and the Before Sunrise comparisons are fitting (Chris Rock's underrated Top Five also comes to mind). It's a lot of walking and talking, but it's good walking and talking. Terrific, snappy, and subtextual dialogue fills the air on everything from food to college, art to race, and employment to family. Tension and uncomfortable silences even arise when the pair call out each other's contradictions, which also emphasizes their humanity.

Sumpter and Sawyers both give tremendous performances while displaying a convincing chemistry, which is crucial for a film like this. They get the mannerisms and vocal inflections down with a youthful angle in mind, but there's less concentration on spot-on impressions and more focus on establishing fully dimensional characters, and this works to the film's advantage. Michelle is business-driven yet wholesome, idealistic yet well aware of the challenges she faces as the only black woman in a predominantly white law firm. Oh yeah, and she's not easily impressed--even considering Barack's smooth charisma and sporty, poetic charm. Don't think Michelle hasn't noticed his underlying unkemptness, his tendency to arrive late, his chain-smoking habit, and the hole in his car.

There's one scene in the middle that drags on a bit too long, and I also wish the film made more of an effort to develop the backdrop of Chicago as a third character, so-to-speak (especially given the film's title), because I didn't really get a major feel for the city here. Still, Southside With You is an intimate and insightful, well-shot little film with a soulful soundtrack. You get the impression that the story would work pretty well even with iconic names aside, but of course it's the prospective views that lend it tons of significance. It's like a subtle glimpse into the budding romance of power couple. A subtle glimpse into what will become monumental American history.

* 8.5/10 *

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