‘Southside With You’ Decent But Lacking

by Warren Cantrell on August 28, 2016

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Up]

Biography pics can be a dicey proposition, especially when they are about a person wholly familiar to audiences. It can be difficult to disconnect from one’s established internal picture of a person unless the actor(s) in question can disappear into the performance through a combination of physical appearance, mannerisms, and natural dialogue. The see-saw between success and failure in this regard is considerable, and for every Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin and Cate Blanchett as Hepburn, there’s also a Josh Brolin as Bush. Southside With You stars Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as the 1989 versions of Michelle and Barack Obama, respectively, who spend the film on a first date. And while the pair does fine work disappearing into these world-famous individuals, the film doesn’t give them a whole lot to do, and fails to provide much insight into the people they would become.

Opening in the homes of Barack and Michelle as they prepare for their day together, director Richard Tanne does an excellent job divorcing the audience from the almost-regal standing of his leads. In 2016, these might be two of the most famous people on the planet, but in 1989, they were a couple of plucky young professionals living paycheck to paycheck. Barack, especially, seems noticeably stripped of the wardrobe and accouterment of a dignified statesman. His car has a hole in the floor, and in order to allow someone to sit in the passenger seat, he has to throw a bunch of crap in the back. These subtle moments lay a great foundation for Southside With You as an exploration of Barack and Michelle’s early days, and what one would hope to be some insight into what makes the President of the United States and the First Lady tick.

These scenes of the future First Couple reveal the picture’s weakest link, however, and it is a hurdle repeatedly stumbled over: the dialogue. Clunky and obvious, one gets the sense that Sumpter and Sawyers are doing their best, yet it all feels a little forced. As they talk about what it means to be a person of color at their law firm, and later, when they delve into their family histories, it feels less like an organic conversation, and more like a couple actors reading their lines. There’s a distance the two keep from each other, and it is hard to tell if this is the result of weak writing, a lack of rehearsal time, or a deliberate choice meant to draw out the awkwardness of a first date’s jitters. Whatever the reason, these early scenes just don’t flow, and although things rebound a bit, there’s a lot left on the table.

The film’s most poignant moment comes near the end of the second act, when Barack is talking at a community meeting. He explains to an exasperated African American audience that their failed efforts to get a city-funded community center haven’t been in vain. Using the same cordial, familiar tone American citizens know so well, Obama talks about the virtue of patience and resilience: how small victories in the midst of failures lead to larger triumphs. He explains that in order to make a difference, a person can’t just demand something, they have to work within the system and whittle away at problems. Most importantly, Barack talks about how the U.S. is comprised of a lot of different people, with a lot of different opinions, all of whom live in a nation specifically designed to make it difficult for any single one of them to get their way.

To left-leaning Americans who feel that Obama didn’t live up to all the lofty expectations formed in 2008, this is a poignant reminder of who our current president truly is. This is a guy who seems to grasp the political realities of the modern two-party system as well as anyone, and who has fought his whole career to balance practical realities against lofty expectations. Southside With You seems to suggest that Barack developed this understanding early on, in one of the most trying situations imaginable (urban community outreach), and it has played into the formation of a president that might not hit a lot of home runs, but bats for a damn good average. Whether a person agrees with his politics or not, this is a very tangible trait that Southside With You develops masterfully, and lends some perspective to the man behind the presidency.

Sadly, this isn’t what the film is concerned with, not centrally, anyway. At its core, Southside With You is a love story, and leans on this romantic dynamic to inform its audience of its themes and intentions. And while the script is tightest when dancing around its core message vis a vis the community meeting, it is weakest when dipping into the fist-date interplay between Michelle and Barack. After the community meeting, Michelle says, “Thanks for inviting me. It’s been a while since I’ve had that kind of connection to real-life struggle.” Lines like these land like a wet tortilla, and are the theatrical equivalent of an audience member seeing a stagehand moving scenery around behind the curtain. It takes a person out of the moment, revealing the structural truss underpinning the larger effort.

This doesn’t ruin the film or the experience, however: it just stands in stark contrast against the better, subtler work that flares up throughout the picture. Southside With You is an engaging, interesting peek into the lives of two influential people, played by a couple of actors who do a superb job slipping into characters much of the world knows quite well. The audience gets a good idea how these two grew into the people many are familiar with on the surface, yet only gives us a peek at who they are behind closed doors. What made Downey’s turn as Chaplin so captivating was the peek into the man behind the legend, just as Blanchett’s performance as Hepburn gave us a glimpse of the vulnerability underneath the tough, confident exterior. Southside With You is a fantastic imitation of Barack and Michelle, yet it comes up short of a revelation about who they really are.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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