If you've had more than one short conversation with me, you may have already ascertained two of my favorite things: The Before Trilogy and President Barack Obama.
If you have no idea what those two things have to do with one another, thank you for reading my thoughts on a movie you've never heard of! I'll briefly explain how exactly Southside With You brings the President and that trilogy together:
The Before Trilogy- a beautiful series of movies comprised of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight- are my favorite films of all time. They follow the relationship between an American man and a French woman at different stages in their lives (each film was made nine years after the last), and they all consist entirely of dialogue between the two. Each Before is only Jesse and Celine walking and talking; driving and discussing; loving or fighting with words.
Southside With You is a new indie effort done in such a style, but it's about the first date between Michelle and Barack Obama.
Like an eager vegan who just discovered green blends, I immediately expected this mix of choice selections to be a movie I loved. What I got was a movie I rather liked: Southside With You works most sweetly when it forgets who Michelle and Barack will inevitably become.
The film picks up with Barack and Michelle separately getting ready for their night out: the former fully expects a romantic date, while the latter refuses any impression but business professional, as she is currently Barack's advisor at a law firm. They're both at critical points in their lives: Barack has recently graduated from Harvard and moved back to south side Chicago to work as a community advisor; Michelle spends her time either taking care of her family or fighting for recognition at a predominantly white male firm.
True stories about interesting people have an instant draw, and Southside With You is no exception- especially when the actor and actress so fully embody these interesting people.
Based on my knowledge of Barack and Michelle through eight years of following their lives and personalities in the White House, Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter absolutely nail their roles as the two soon-to-be lovers. Both performers are relatively unknown, but Southside With You is sure to earn them more roles in the near future.
Sawyers is confident and charismatic, which feeds into both his signature sense of wit and a boldfaced social awareness. Sumpter is articulate and strong-willed, and she lays down a convincing blueprint for the role model Michelle would eventually become. Their flaws are on display as well, and watching the two begin to grow past them together creates a sort of realistic reverence for the power couple.
The most prevalent reason Southside With You could never measure up to the The Before Trilogy is its hokey mission statement to provide an origin story for Barack and Michelle Obama. This is, at heart, a story about two people on a first date. When it tries hard to explain "why the Obamas got the way they are", it loses much needed charm and the dialogue feels forced.
This is mostly a problem during the first half, when Richard Tanne- in his writer/director debut here- attempts to establish the characters. Sometimes he relies too much on our assumed knowledge of the two, other times he gives us too much extraneous information. During the second half, all the affecting pieces fall into place though.
When Southside With You lets Barack be Barack and Michelle be Michelle rather than a future President and First Lady, it's wonderfully sentimental. Their interactions outline two clearly intelligent, driven human beings- and paint a delicate portrait of a blossoming love built on the shared desire to better the lives of others. Key scenes in their romantic development drip with heated fervor; a passion with a purpose.
In narrative and in tone, Southside With You also carves out a valuable piece of Afrocentric art. Barack and Michelle visit two art displays during the film: an African-American gallery, and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Both of these expressions are important landmarks of black culture. Southside With You's quiet study of the personal lives of the first black President/First Lady deserves recognition among them.