Southside With You January 5, 2017
The downside of a great romantic comedy is the reality that there remains a slim chance that we’ll see how the focal couple ends up in the years to come. Generally things are appropriately Technicolor for cinematic lovebirds at the end of a two-hour romantic journey. But when we additionally become invested in them do we wonder, at least if they were to exist in the real world, if they really and truly are soulmates or if they’re just perfect for each other for a couple years until charming quirks become unbearable and until physical chemistry makes way for predictability without charge.
For Richard Tanne’s sunny Southside With You (2016), the Before Sunrise (1995)-style account of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, much of the fun rests in our knowing of exactly where the couple in question will be in twenty years. Neither knows that they’ll get hitched come 1992. That they’ll someday be mom and dad to two beautiful daughters. That they’ll call The White House home almost two decades after their first introduction.
But as we’ve grown accustomed to watching a couple we’re either jealous of or totally in love with ourselves mature together over the years, surprising, and amusing, is the way the inceptive connection between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson isn’t as directly easygoing, as directly relaxed, as we’d expect it to be. At least at first.
Both working at the same Chicago law firm in the summer of 1989, Michelle is essentially Barack’s superior. She’s a lawyer rising in the ranks, and he’s a seasonal associate to make way for another when September arrives. To Barack, Michelle is electric, the most beautiful and intelligent woman he’s ever come across. But Michelle isn’t so sure about her would-be suitor: he’s attractive and he’s eloquent, maybe, but she’s had plenty of attractive and eloquent guys try to win her heart in the spectacle of her life. There’s a good chance that he could become yet another casualty in her line of failed relationships.
So when Barack invites her to a community event, Michelle is firm in her conviction that it isn’t a date — just a get-together between colleagues who have similar interests. As she watches her get ready, though, her mother would beg to differ. Michelle laughs accusations of romantic interest off. “You know I like to look nice when I go out,” she insists. But Mrs. Robinson, and us, is suspicious that the young woman is at least a little intrigued by the man entertaining her for the afternoon.
And she eventually proves to be weak to his allure, though it takes plenty of convincing. Abidingly headstrong, Michelle’s unafraid to make her independence, along with her reservations about combining the personal and the professional, known. (A lot of Southside With You’s length is spent watching its pair butt heads, which is an appealing asset.) But when hesitation trades places with romantic cohesion, we very much become enraptured with what the movie has to say — genuine is our feeling that this is how our resident president and his lady’s first date went down, and we’re never less than riveted in seeing them spend the day together. Our adoration of these characters is predetermined. All we have to do is watch.
In our watching, though, do we find that Southside With You is ever so slightly stilted, has the tendency to surround itself with background music annoyingly incessantly (as if Tanne’s incapable of trusting that his dialogue is effective enough to sway us emotionally on its own), and wastes five minutes trying to foreshadow Barack’s presidency through a speech that feels more gratuitous than vital.
Still, Southside With You is a winner, living proof that the all too rare walking and talking rom-com is sometimes the best kind of rom-com. Tika Sumpter (who also co-produces) and Parker Sawyers nail the vocal phrasing and physical nuances of their characters, fleshing out immaculate performances that avoid impression. Tanne incorporates the cultural and societal frustrations of the late 1980s and intermixes them smartly with the love story in front of us. Initially does its existence seem strange, unnecessary. But when its eighty-four minutes are up, we’re plenty glad Tanne and his stars took the time to bring the backstory we never knew we needed to life. B