Entwined love stories involving Queens Museum curator Mae (Issa Rae) and her recently deceased mother Christina (Chanté Adams) form the plot of Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph,” an artistic combination of drama, humor and romance.
Despite a few incongruous hiccups in the storyline midway through the film, “The Photograph” captivates with its witty use of humor, its effective transitions between scenes of the past and the present and the strong parallel development of Mae and Christina.
The movie starts with Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield), a reporter for the New York newspaper The Republic, setting out to write an article on Christina’s career as a renowned photographer. Along the way, he is introduced to Christina’s daughter Mae and conducts multiple interviews with her. But as the two spend more time together, they fall in love and slowly start to uncover the mysterious and perplexing stories of Christina’s youth as both a photographer and a mother to Mae.
The focus on heavy relationships could have turned the atmosphere into a rather serious and emotional one, but the film utilizes humor effectively to loosen up the audience. Notably, during the multiple scenes in which Michael meets with his brother Kyle (Lil Rel Howery) and his family to seek advice on his relationship with Mae, Kyle’s hilarious interjections make it difficult for the audience to hold back their laughter. Rather than clashing with the movie’s themes of romance and love, the lighter vibe of the humorous scenes allows viewers to see the characters in a different, more three-dimensional light.
The serious moments should not be overlooked, however. The film’s use of transitions between scenes of Christina in the past and Mae in the present is emotionally powerful. Many of Christina’s stories involving her boyfriend, Isaac (Rob Morgan), and her parents are centered on themes of sadness, limitations and hardships, while most of Mae’s stories in the present with Michael are focused on hope, romance and understanding. Whenever the audience was content with the progression of Mae and Michael’s relationship in the present, the movie jumped back into the past to depict Christina’s struggles.
The transitions inspired a dynamic, conflicting emotional atmosphere for the audience throughout the film, easily comparable to the emotional fluctuations a person experiences in a relationship. The realism creates a sense within the audience that they are not simply watching the romantic relationship unfold between Mae and Michael but are also part of it. They experience its full emotional effects from a very intimate perspective. The film is able to portray their romantic relationship in a compelling, authentic way that is accessible to the viewer.
The comparisons between Mae and Christina serve as a compelling element of the movie. Throughout the film, Christina is constantly portrayed as a woman who was ready to give up anything to build her career as a renowned photographer. As a result, she is presented as a mother who did not know how to show love toward her daughter and was even afraid to do so.
Similar to her mother, Mae is uncomfortable and nervous about expressing her affections in her relationship with Michael. She is initially confused about Michael’s romantic feelings for her and is never really certain how she should act in the relationship. However, after learning that Michael’s love for her is genuine, Mae confidently devotes herself to the relationship instead of being afraid to show love like her mother. The parallel emotions yet different development of Christina and Mae unify their narratives with a common theme — their difficulties conveying love — and show how the two women are different from each other in how they resolve that issue.
Nevertheless, there were certain points about midway through the film that felt forced. For example, after opening with Christine’s successful start as a photographer in New York, the film suddenly depicts the death of Christine’s mother. The death seemed unnatural — it felt rushed and disorienting so early in the film, before the audience even really got to know the characters and feel for them.
Overall, “The Photograph” is a satisfactory film that certainly manages to captivate audiences. Even with some ill-fitting points within the storyline, the well-executed balance of humor, raw emotion and romance allows the film to weave a fascinating tale of hurt and loss redeemed by love.