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Southside with You - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Southside with You
Directing: A-
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

It's tempting to expect a movie based on a day in the younger lives of people who are not yet even out of the White House can't possibly be that good. Take my word for it, if you see Southside with You, it will change your mind. It's subtle, but there is something genuinely extraordinary about this movie. It takes two ordinary people we already know were later put into extraordinary positions, and ties them to our nation's complicated history and its complicated present. And it does it with a deceptively simple conceit: following young Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson on their first date -- something that is clear to us, but not to them, is a date with destiny.

Any fan of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy will find the concept familiar. Southside with You is all talk, no action -- just 84 minutes of two main characters engaged in discussion. But instead of Linklater's flair for the abstractly philosophical, writer-director Richard Tanne packs the Obamas's story with meaning connected to their real-world lives and ideas. Occasionally it is slightly tongue-in-cheek; the very first time we see Barack Obama, he is taking a deep drag off a cigarette. We see him smoking a lot, actually. Michelle never makes much of it, but we are clearly meant to notice.

But it's details like this that inch Southside with You closer to the realm of greatness. You can never expect a cinematic biopic to be a particularly true reflection of what happened exactly, which is often the problem with films like this. But with this one, that is its asset. America wants mythologies of its great leaders, and this movie gets at the essence of their story. Is it contrived? Absolutely. But it's contrived in all the right ways.

This movie deserves more attention than it seems to be getting. It's barely made $3.6 million domestically so far. Even in a liberal enclave like Seattle, the screening I went to was sparsely attended. (In its defense, it was a Saturday matinee.) I can only hope this movie finds new life when available on streaming services. Everyone should watch it.

Okay, sure, it's not exciting -- the closest it gets is when Michelle and Barack go see Do the Right Thing and there's a riot on the screen. Otherwise, it's just characters talking, as Michelle keeps insisting this isn't a date because she's Barack's supervisor at the firm where they work, but over the course of the day he wins her over. But it's precisely the talking -- what they talk about -- that matters. It's what makes this movie matter.

Barack brings Michelle to a community organizing event. She gets to see him make an impassioned and influential speech, off the cuff -- and so do we. He speaks of things we as audience members have heard him refer to in speeches as President. The two of them talk about the challenges they face as a woman and as black people. It's all pretty intellectual in tone, and their conversations are always riveting. You get the feeling that if you had been nearby when they were on this non-date that turned into a date, and overheard them talking, you would find it difficult not to eavesdrop.

The performances, it must be said, are spectacular. Tina Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are pretty unknown actors, which is what I usually wish for in biopics that distract the viewer with super-famous actors cast in the lead roles. And these two, they have Michelle and Barack's vocal styles and mannerisms down to an astonishing accuracy. You really feel like you're watching these two real-life people at a younger age.

Southside with You has much to say about race, class, history, the recent past and the present -- but never once is it heavy-handed or even close to blatant about it. Richard Tanne's script weaves all this together with such seamlessness, always hinting at these themes while focusing on the characters in the forefront, it's Oscar-worthy. It probably won't get that kind of attention, which it deserves, because not enough people saw it. Do the world a favor -- to the Obamas a favor, do the country a favor, do yourselves a favor -- and see this movie.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers offer stunningly familiar portrayals of Michelle and Barack Obama in SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU.

Overall: A-
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