‘Southside with You’
Director: Richard Tanne
Stars: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
3 (out of 5) Globes
The Obamas movie might work even if it wasn’t about the Obamas, which is one of the best things you can say about it. It if wasn’t about them, it would be little more than a minor pleasure — a nice indie romance about a date between two nice people, one who’s (at first) more into the other then vice versa. The fact that they discuss being black in careers dominated by white colleagues would elevate it to something more. The two fairly unknown leads would seem talented and winning, and you’d want to see them pop up in movies with more ambition than hanging with people as they walk around and chit-chat. (Eric Rohmer this is not.)
But “Southside with You” isn’t a mere “Before Sunrise” knockoff. Its heroes happen to be Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama. It’s a cinematic imagining of the First Couple’s semi-awkward first semi-date circa 1989, when Barack (Parker Sawyers) goaded Michelle (Tika Sumpter), then his “mentor” at a Chicago law firm, into joining him at a low-income neighborhood meeting, with the express purpose of nudging it into something more. Michelle is irritated at first, resistant to her colleague’s gently pushy charms. But she slowly gives in, and the rest is earth-shattering and annoyingly contentious history.
But in “Southside with You,” life is still (mostly) rosy. In the back of our minds, we know that Obama’s presidency will embolden part of the country and enrage the rest. We know that even his supporters will take issue with some of his dealings. We know that his detractors will go so insane with Obama-rage that they’ll nominate an actual lunatic to the Republican ticket. Richard Tanne’s indie asks us to forget about that for 81 minutes. Look! Aren’t the young Obamas cute!
They sure are, though Tanne gracefully injects just enough heaviness that the movie doesn’t float away. Apart from walking and talking, they don’t have much to do. There’s the neighborhood meeting, at which Barack shows off his oratory prowess while Michelle tries not to melt, plus a whimsical trip to see that “Do the Right Thing” movie everyone’s talking about. Race is a favorite discussion point, as is career ambition and Barack’s father. Tanne ladles this on a little too much, if anything, though he goes light with wink-winky references to Barry and Michelle’s future. (There’s no part where a burly bouncer at a bar with a fox for hair asks for his long-form birth certificate.)
His leads go subtle, too. Sawyers’ O is a bit too close to an impersonation, but he seems winningly not-quite-formed. Sayers still captures the way Obama is cagey yet charismatic, and nails his schoolmarmish intonation when, in the midst of making points, he says “Second…” (All that’s missing is him saying, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear…”) Even better is Sumpter (probably best known for being wasted in the “Ride Along”s), who gives us a version of Michelle we rarely see — but perhaps that’s because the real deal isn’t omnipresent like her husband. Her version of the First Lady is stern yet flirty, clearly more confident than the man who will one day lead the free world. Watching her swaggering Michelle, it’s strange to think of her as a mere First Lady, just as it would to watch Young Hillary in a movie about the Clintons’ first date. “Southside with You” is slight, and that’s part of the charm. It’s the pleasant movie we deserve after a needlessly contentious eight years.