Finally, a first-rate origins story that doesn’t involve anyone getting bitten by a radioactive spider, learning one is a mutant or landing on Earth from a faraway planet.
“Southside with You” is a sweet, intelligent, well-crafted, wonderfully romantic, no-frills re-imagination of the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, when both were young stars on the rise but neither possibly could have imagined they’d one day take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for eight years.
Thanks to a nimble, fast-paced, witty script and sure-handed direction from Richard Tanne, and immensely charming performances from Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, “Southside with You” is maybe the most romantic movie I’ve seen this year.
This is first and foremost a romance — not a political statement, not a hagiography of the Obamas, though we’re sure to read some op-eds and hear from some talk-show shouters claiming otherwise.
It’s a romantic drama sprinkled with comedy. A timeless, universal snapshot of the awkward, halting and sometimes exhilarating paces of those first few hours when you’re with someone and you’re wondering: Is this going to be a thing? Wait — is this going to be THE THING?
Let’s put it this way. If the main characters had been purely fictional creations named Bob and Maureen, and every other aspect of the script and filming were intact, this would have worked well as a “Before Sunrise”-type journey, an essentially two-character slice of day-in-the-life.
That we know what’s in store for these two brilliant, ambitious, socially conscious, likable individuals adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the viewing experience. On more than one occasion, we chuckle knowingly. We’ve got the inside scoop. We know how it all turns out.
It’s the summer of 1989, and we’re on the South Side of Chicago. (Working on a small budget and filming in Chicago last summer, writer-director Tanne shows us some parts of the city not often captured in movies, and does a credible job of taking us back a quarter-century.*)
Despite driving a beater with a hole in the floor on the passenger side, young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) exudes self-confidence as he pulls up late to pick up Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) for what he’s calling a date, and what she says is simply two colleagues attending a community meeting.
Michelle is with a prestigious Chicago law firm and she’s been assigned to mentor Barack, a summer associate. She’s essentially his boss, and the last thing she wants is to get romantically involved with this guy. She fears it will undercut all the work she’s done to be taken seriously not only as a woman, but as an African-American woman in a corporate law world dominated by older white men.
“It’s not a date,” Michelle tells Barack, time and again. It’s not a date until SHE says it’s a date.
He takes that as an opening. There’s a chance!
Neither Sumpter nor Sawyers is doing an impersonation of the future-world-famous characters they’re portraying. The acting is more sophisticated, more layered, than that. Sumpter does a magnificent job of capturing the young Michelle Robinson’s steely determination and strength of character, while Sawyers is uncanny in his portrayal of a social/political rock star in the making who already understands the effect he has on people, but is struggling with a troubled past that includes a father who was never there for him and a number of years spent in a cloudy haze, as he puts it.
From a surprisingly educational discussion of the Chicago-based sitcom “Good Times” to the aforementioned community meeting in a church to a revealing discussion after Barack and Michelle see Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” writer-director Tanne effortlessly blends the romantic byplay with pop-culture touchstones and Big Picture debates, without getting too preachy or taking us out of the moment.
Of course this is a stylized — and yes, on occasion, idealized — version of the launching point of a lifelong romance between two young Chicago residents who would go on to make history. That’s pretty much the point. To those that say the first time W met Laura, or the moment Donald laid eyes on Melania, or the first “date” of any famous Republican couple could be made into a movie, I would say: Go ahead and make it.
And you’ll be lucky if your writer-director and your actors have anywhere near the talent level of the principals involved in “Southside with You.”
* Full disclosure: My sister was the property master on this film. All due and great respect to prop masters and prop assistants everywhere, the next time I base a review on the props will be the first time in thousands of reviews I’ve based a review on the props.)
Miramax and Roadside Attractions present a film written and directed by Richard Tanne. Running time: 84 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference). Opens Aug. 26 at local theaters.