The Photograph is a movie that feels needlessly unsure of the story it wants to tell. Stella Meghie’s romance is, at times, a drama about the emotional legacies we inherit from our parents, and discovering the complex truths behind the people who gave us life. Just as often, however, Meghie’s movie is a romantic comedy with a familiar three-act structure and conflict, a pair of charming leads in Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, and a standard group of stock characters. Meghie’s movie never fully commits to one or the other, nor to a consistent perspective.
Instead, we get two underbaked movies for the price of one. The first is about Michael (Stanfield), a journalist for an online magazine. He’s in New Orleans writing a story on hurricane victims (or possibly Louisiana riverboat fishermen, it’s never actually specified). While visiting a source, Isaac (Rob Morgan of Just Mercy), Michael finds some photos by a photographer named Christina, Isaac’s old flame. Back in New York, Michael searches for more information on Christina, who somehow ties into this nebulous article he’s writing, which put him in touch with the late woman’s daughter, Mae (Rae), whom he immediately falls for.
The other A-plot in The Photograph is Mae’s story, about processing the recent death of her emotionally distant mother, Christina, and coming upon a pair of letters left by Christina for Mae and her father (Courtney B. Vance) regarding Christina’s early life. The story switches between Mae and her growing relationship with Michael, and Christina’s (Chanté Adams) adolescent relationship with Isaac (Y’lan Noel).
Each of these could easily be a fully-developed movie of its own. Cut up and stuck back together as they are, the result is two frustratingly incomplete ones. The Photograph should primarily be Mae’s movie, which Meghie seems to finally figure out in the third act, but her screenplay bafflingly spends most of its first act with Michael. Meghie digs into the details of his workplace and family relationships, while doing very little work to develop those same details for Mae – a major problem, since she’s the source of most of the movie’s dramatic stakes.
That imbalance of character development also impacts the performances of the leads. Stanfield and Rae manage to power the middle third of the movie through sheer force of charisma once their characters finally get together, and the story belongs to them both equally. Until that point, however, Rae is given very little to work with. The dialogue in her early scenes, including her first meeting with Stanfield’s Michael, is so wooden that you can practically hear the disappointment in Rae’s voice as she says it.
The Photograph does manage to gain significant traction once Mae and Michael’s romance heats up, and is also lifted by some solid supporting performances – particularly Lil Rel Howery and the too-rarely-seen Teyonah Parris as Michael’s brother and sister-in-law. Unfortunately, the strength and commitment of the performers isn’t enough to fix bad writing. Conflicts that should have been present at the beginning of the narrative are suddenly introduced halfway through, piled on to a story that has enough going on as it is. In all of it, we lose the character of Christina, and the thematic connections between mother and daughter, almost completely. Meghie finally decides to address that emotional throughline – what we’ve been told is the movie’s biggest theme – in the final act, but before then it almost feels like an afterthought.
The Photograph is a film without a focal point. There are several seeds of good ideas throughout, but they need room to grow. Jammed together in such a relatively brief (under two hour) span, the stories and characters can’t connect the way they need to, ultimately doing a disservice to the cast’s best efforts to keep the thing going. It’s less a movie than it is a half-finished collage.