Directed and written by Stella Meghie, The Photograph is an aesthetically pleasing film, but one that lacks a lot of depth and fluidity. In trying to fit in two romantic storylines at once, the film loses much of its focus and balance. The Photograph chooses instead to relish in the past, undercutting much of the present day romance, leaving the film largely underdeveloped in the process.
While on assignment in Louisiana, Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) happens upon a mysterious photograph that leads him to Mae (Issa Rae), a museum curator whose mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), is the subject of the photo. The story behind the photograph slowly begins to unravel after Mae and Michael get to know each other and is exacerbated by the letter Christina has left Mae. The idea is that if Christina explains her own life and actions, Mae won’t lead her life making the same mistakes.
There’s an underlying melancholy present throughout the film, a flame of regret that ignites in the quietest of moments, heightened by the musical score. Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield do a lot with very little, but even their connection often feels like a reach. The film implies that Mae doesn’t want to become her mother or make the same mistakes as her, but never delves into what that might mean and how it affects her.
The Photograph doesn’t take the time to explore their relationship or their past, relying on flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Flashbacks that, despite the movie’s insistence upon their importance, ultimately have little significance in the grand scheme of things. That’s due, at least in part, to the hollowness of the plot. While meant to capture the love stories and mistakes made by mother and daughter, the film is more of a shell of what could have been rather than an in-depth study of matrilineal bonds, loneliness, and the heaviness of regret.
The Photograph attempts to help Mae see the light by way of her mother’s letter, but the film becomes ironically trapped in its own past, unwilling to stoke the fires of the present day romance between Mae and Michael. The blanket of sadness envelops the film, but there’s so much emotional baggage to unpack that The Photograph glosses over, leaving holes in its storyline at every turn. It’s content to live in remorse rather than face the characters’ utter lack of communication, implying that Christina remained regretful despite having been married to someone else for three decades — another relationship the film fails to properly address.
The Photograph isn’t all bad and has quite a few heartfelt moments, visually captivating and occasionally beautiful in its sentiment. However, the film is overshadowed by its incomplete storytelling and underdeveloped characters. The chemistry between Rae and Stanfield is ultimately lost amid the choices to embellish in aesthetic than to dive into the true heart of the story.