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‘The Photograph,’ elegant and insightful, puts the focus on personal choices

Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae do wonderful work as people with an instant connection.

While writing about a famed photographer, Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) falls for her daughter Mae (Issa Rae) in “The Photograph.”
Universal Pictures

We’re all photographers these days.

Strike that. We all TAKE photos every day — whipping out that smartphone to capture moments large and small, building a library of dozens, hundreds, thousands of pictures.

Once in a while, we take a photo worth printing out and framing.

Still. I know on my best day as a picture-taker, I’m not a photographer.

In writer-director Stella Meghie’s jazz-infused, melancholy, contemplative and lovely “The Photograph,” the pictures don’t tell the full story, but they’re the launching point.

We see a young woman — a photographer — sitting at a folding card table, captured in a moment just before she makes a life-changing decision. We see a young man, her man, standing in front of the shed he has helped turned into a darkroom for her.

The photographs are works of art. Striking and beautiful — and more than a little sad, as we eventually learn what happened to the two people in those pictures.

In the early stages of “The Photograph,” it feels as if we could be in for a noir mystery of some kind that will jump back and forth from present day to some key events in the mid- and late 1980s. And indeed, certain secrets and surprising connections between the main players here are eventually revealed, but this is not a crime story, nor is it a pulpy melodrama with shocking twists. It’s a knowing and insightful look at how lives can be forever changed and love can be lost or gained in a single moment.

Sometimes one says the wrong thing. Sometimes one says nothing at all — which can be even more devastating.

Lakeith Stanfield does strong, quietly effective work as Michael Block, a rising star journalist with a New York-based publication that must be doing quite well, given the size and scope of the home office — not to mention the time and the travel budget he’s given to work on a story about a famed photographer named Christina Eames who has recently passed away.

After a trip to Louisiana to interview a man named Isaac (Rob Morgan) who was in love with Christina before she moved to New York to pursue a career, Michael returns to the city to talk to Christina’s estranged daughter Mae (Issa Rae, in a wonderful performance).

There’s an instant connection between the two. Even though Michael is only weeks past a breakup, he begins to pursue Mae more doggedly than he pursues the story. (The wobbly depiction of long-form magazine journalism in “The Photograph” is almost totally lost as the various relationship stories take center stage, and we should be grateful for that. We’re TOLD Michael is a rock star of a writer-reporter, but the evidence suggests otherwise.)

Between scenes of Michael and Mae debating the merits of artists such as Drake and Kendrick, cuddling up to the sounds of Al Green and becoming increasingly intimate, we get flashbacks to two different time periods in the 1980s.

In the earlier segments, set in Louisiana, young Christina (Chante Adams) is in love with Isaac (played by Y’lan Noel), a third-generation fisherman. Isaac is a good but relatively uncomplicated man; he doesn’t share Christina’s visions of a bigger life. She leaves him behind and sets off to New York.

Flashbacks trace the relationship of Mae’s mother, Christina (Chante Adams) and Isaac (Y’lan Noel) in “The Photograph.”
Universal Pictures

A few years later, Christina is already making her mark as a photographer — but as she confesses in a home video interview recorded by an unseen person in her life, she wishes she could love being a mother as much as she loves her work.

All of this sounds heavy, and indeed “The Photograph” has no shortage of dramatic moments. But it’s also sweet and light, especially in the scenes where Michael (and eventually Mae) visit Michael’s brother Kyle (Lil Rel Howery) and his family. (Kyle’s one-liners about his brother wearing a top hat as his best man are hilarious.)

Chelsea Peretti also scores some laughs as Michael’s editor, whose newsroom speech at Michael’s goodbye party when he takes a better job is brutally honest.

“The Photograph,” appropriately enough, is a very well-photographed film, with excellent production design. (There’s a scene where Michael and Mae take a post-storm stroll down an empty city street that feels equal parts authentic and totally Hollywood back lot. It’s gritty but also lovely as hell.)

My favorite scene is when Mae and Mike go to New Orleans and take the same stairway to the same second-floor jazz club Christina and Isaac once visited more than 30 years earlier.

They have no idea of this coincidence. Nor do they realize they’re in danger of making the same mistakes Christina and Isaac made all those years ago.

Maybe this time, someone will speak up, or make the right grand gesture and take a flying leap of love and faith, before it’s too late.