There is no feeling on Earth quite like a really great first date. There’s so much hope and expectation and uncertainty wrapped up in a few short hours with someone you like, a concrete sense that the outcome of this date completely alter the course of your life. It makes sense, then, that one of my all-time favorite romance movies is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, that ultimate first date movie that tells the story of a French woman and an American man who meet by chance and decide to spend a night exploring Vienna together before their respective schedules drag them apart. The highest compliment I can give first-time writer/director Richard Tanne, then, is that he does a good job capturing the energy of Before Sunrise, the unfiltered emotional drama of those electric first hours together with someone special. And while Southside With You has some vital flaws, it is still almost certainly the best romance I’ve seen in theaters since Andrew Haigh’s Weekend.
It’s the summer of 1989, and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) is a second year associate at a large Chicago law firm. While she needs this job to help pay off her students loans, she’s been yearning for a chance to really help people. When a young summer associate, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), invites her to a community meeting, she decides to go, thinking it would just be a friendly day between colleagues. Barack has other ideas, and as the day carries on, a visit to the museum, drinks, a movie get added to what is clearly becoming a life-changing first-date for the both of them.
There’s really only one note that sours the movie for me: Barack is not a man who takes no for an answer. Tanne almost certainly meant to use this to highlight Barack’s charm, as he talks his way up from essentially tricking her into a first date using her interest in community activism to what became an intimate evening with them both. I actually wouldn’t necessarily mind that, if the movie didn’t highlight how frequently Michelle had to point out that Barack wasn’t respecting her boundaries, wasn’t respecting her wishes, wasn’t respecting her. It is meant to highlight how charming Barack is, something Parker Sawyers plays very well, but the movie conflates his unwillingness to hear “No” from condo developers with his unwillingness to hear “No” from romantic partners in a way that I found deeply disturbing. The movie rarely lingers on it, but every time it does, the romantic aspects begin to fray.
That said, for audiences who can forgive this sizable defect, largely two scenes that get just a bit too sour for me… Southside With You is an otherwise stellar romantic drama. Part of what makes a great romance work, what modern writers have forgotten in the push towards formula, is making the audience fall in love with a couple before the characters themselves do. Southside With You excels, here, taking one of the most flat-out likable celebrity couples in modern America and just letting them exist with one another. While it occasionally falls flat when the film falls into typical biopic problems and over-relies on crass references to their future or an obsession with personal history, Tanne makes those mistakes only very rarely. For the most part, the movie is about the intellectual push and pull between our two bright, quick leads, as their brains catch up to the undeniable physical chemistry the pair of them share.
Which means, of course, finding the perfect pair to play Barack and Michelle is essential. I think Southside With You succeeded here. Tika Sumpter manages to capture the precision and intelligence of Michelle well, but we’re seeing here a younger, more conflicted woman. She is highly competent, but torn between two worlds – she doesn’t necessarily like being a cog in a corporate law firm, but she’s dedicated to doing it better than anyone else, in part to offset the internal conflict that arrives from being a black woman in a firm full of white men. And Parker Sawyers is a real find as well. Barack Obama is probably the flat-out coolest President we’ve had in a looooong time, and Sawyers captures the youthful swagger that came with being a brilliant, charismatic speaker. Thankfully, Southside With You is no hagiography, though; both Barack and Michelle are flawed characters, one cocky and flighty and angrily holding on to a past he can’t quite grasp, the other uncertain and tightly wound, knowing she deserves greatness but feeling like she’ll never be allowed to earn it. They’re fascinating performances, and the two of them ground everything we see.
Southside With You is a sweetly alluring film, the sort of character-study-as-romance we so rarely see. Richard Tanne has assembled a winning cast, but the film rarely pushes any extraneous drama on to them. Instead, Southside With You mines its drama from the push and pull of two people getting to know one another. They talk about art, poetry, politics, and their own histories, walking and talking and giving us a deep sense of the intimacy they manage to build over a single day. From the moment Michelle Robinson catches a glimpse of Barack Obama the side view mirror of his car, a gorgeously shot moment that captures the charm and youthful vitality of a character we’ve only just met, it’s obvious that’s she’s started falling. But if you are anything like me, by the time that brief, early shot ends, you’ve already fallen under Southside With You‘s spell.
Southside With You is out now in limited release across the country. Written and directed by Richard Tanne, Southside With You stars Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers.