The Photograph is a bit like a Nicholas Sparks movie, but less reliant on cheap melodrama. Stella Meghie’s film has many of the classic Sparks staples: a love story, death, flashbacks, letters, and – of course – photographs. There are a few notable differences, though. For starters, there isn’t a one-dimensional villain and not every character onscreen is so vanilla. What’s more, the romantic leads have more chemistry, the dialogue is more natural, and the conflict comes off as less forced. The problem is that the film can never decide what the conflict is supposed to be.
Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield were tailor-made to star in a romantic comedy together, which is The Photograph’s greatest advantage. Rae plays Mae, the daughter of a recently deceased photographer named Christina, who’s played by Chante Adams in flashbacks. Stanfield is Michael, a journalist assigned to write a story about Christina and in turn, falls for her daughter. Mae always felt distant towards her mother, who lived in her art while pushing loved ones away. While this could make for an interesting character study, we don’t get to know Christina all that well.
In the past, we see Christina feuding with her own mother, although their dynamic could’ve been fleshed out so much more. Aside from a couple of passive-aggressive exchanges, Christina’s mother’s development seemingly got left on the cutting room floor. Nevertheless, Christina’s mommy issues drive her into the arms of a man named Issac, who’s played by Y’lan Noel in flashbacks and Rob Morgan in the present day. Then later down the line, Christina abandons Issac to live in New York for… reasons. What exactly prompts this decision? We don’t understand why Christina leaves or even what she wants out of life.
These flashbacks are supposed to parallel the present day where Rae second-guesses her relationship with Michael. Rae clearly has a fear of commitment that was passed down from her mother. Since we don’t entirely comprehend Christina’s fear of commitment, however, the movie doesn’t quite add up. There are multiple instances where Rae finds herself looking at old photographs and videos, trying to make a connection with her mother. It’s practically a cliché to say that a picture is worth a thousand words. The pictures that Christina leaves behind, though, are only worth a handful of words.
Courtney B. Vance is especially underutilized as Mae’s father figure, who’s been hiding a dark secret about her mother. The Photograph keeps hinting at a mystery regarding Christina’s past. While we do get something of a twist in the second half, there isn’t really any payoff. Even the big revelation isn’t treated with the gravitas that one would expect, seeming more like a footnote than a bombshell.
While Christina’s story doesn’t amount to much, Mae and Michael’s courtship does lead to several warm and funny moments. Rae and Stanfield have a natural rapport, which is almost enough to save the film. Even their romance can meander at times, however. The two share an on-again, off-again relationship that doesn’t always have much rhyme or reason. It feels like scenes are missing and instead of building to a resolution, The Photograph just kind of ends. Between the likable cast and the intriguing setup, there’s a solid date movie in here somewhere. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough depth or focus for it truly capture our hearts.