Let’s get this out of the way: I like Barack and Michelle Obama. But I am also aware that they are human beings. I feel the need to clarify this fact because Southside with You seems to have lost sight of it. In mythologizing the Obama romance, it loses the human element (not unlike the manner in which Jackie Onassis’ use of the sobriquet Camelot put a storybook sheen on a relationship — and presidency — that was every bit as conflicted and problematic as anybody else’s). While I wasn’t expecting anything salacious, I had hoped for a little more nuance. If you’ve ever heard a friend or relative tell an implausibly romantic and convenient story about how they got together with their spouse, then you have some idea of what this film entails.
Maybe I’m jaded — and that “maybe” is heavily laden with sarcasm — but I suspect that nobody’s relationship is as uncomplicated and obvious as the meet-cutery depicted between the Obamas in this film. Douglas Sirk at his worst couldn’t have conceived of a more treacly melodrama with lower stakes than Southside with You. Sometimes you know how a film ends before you set foot in a theater, but a great movie can make you forget that fact. Southside beats its audience over the head with the implications of its humble premise, never passing up an opportunity to remind us who these accomplished young lawyers-in-love will become. While this film tells a very nice story — and, for all I know, it may well be accurate — I don’t believe it for one minute.
That said, Southside is far from the worst film I’ve seen this week or even this month. In places, it’s actually pretty good. Had the film been a romantic dramedy about two random young people falling in love in 1980s Chicago, it would’ve been better than a lot of films of its ilk. But Southside is so convinced of its own significance that its attempts to humanize its leads come across as supremely contrived, with the future Obamas playing like caricatures rather than characters. It’s almost as if writer-director Richard Tanne wanted to shoehorn in every publicly known personal detail of his subjects’ first date to assure the audience of his story’s authenticity, rather than simply penning Barack and Michelle as relatable protagonists.
Tanne’s shortcomings extend well beyond his script, and that’s a genuine shame because stars Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter embody Barack and Michelle admirably. The duo ably carry a film that consists of little more than the two of them walking and talking — a commendable feat under the best of circumstances — and one wonders what they could’ve accomplished had they been working with better material. But Tanne’s direction is as flaccid as his script is pat. An exchange (of Tanne’s invention) in which Barack and Michelle debate the aesthetic merits of African-American artist Ernie Barnes references the painter’s involvement with the TV show Good Times, and this allusion is particularly apt because Tanne’s establishing shots are stylistically redolent of sitcom filmmaking. If Barnes is noted for portraying the verve and dynamism of ghetto life, Tanne’s work shares more with Norman Rockwell’s aseptic vision of an impossibly saccharine world.
Watching Southside, I couldn’t help but recall a conversation I had with my father after we saw Walk the Line together on its release. I complained that Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal didn’t quite match my mental image of Johnny Cash, and my dad had to explain that this was the point of the film. Cash wasn’t always the mythic creature he would one day become, and that’s the point that Southside misses when it comes to the Obamas. Human beings, historically significant or otherwise, do not emerge fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. There is no real sense of growth or conflict here, just a highly idealized portrait of a much-loved power couple as though it were made in anticipation of people missing them once they’re no longer in the White House. When that day comes, perhaps I’ll feel differently about Southside with You. For the time being, however, I’ll have to abstain from giving Tanne’s debut feature my vote of confidence. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference
Opens Friday at Carolina Cinemark and Fine Arts Theatre