“Southside With You”
“Southside With You” is familiar and yet new. In its form — two people go on a long first date and just talk and talk — the movie is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995), with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. But here we also get the mythologizing of a sitting president, a detailed, semifictional account of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date.
Needless to say, if you don’t like President Obama, don’t bother seeing this. You won’t enjoy it, despite its virtues, because “Southside With You” is about two love stories, and one of them you’ll find annoying. There’s the burgeoning onscreen romance between Barack and Michelle, but then there’s the love story that the movie’s existence both implies and tries to feed — the romance between Obama and the American public. To see “Southside With You” is to come away assured that Obama has earned an unusually fond place in his countrymen’s affections.
The film was written and directed by Richard Tanne (this is his first feature), who researched the Obamas’ first date with no help from the first family. Tanne pieced together as many details as he could from the historical record, and he made up the rest. For the record, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson really did go to the Art Institute of Chicago, and to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” They really did get ice cream, and the movie shows them having their first kiss at the time and place it actually happened. But the community meeting also depicted in the film may have occurred on an entirely different day.
Of course, when the Obamas eventually see this movie, even they will have to agree that, if they didn’t say or do these things, they really should have. The casting is splendid. Tika Sumpter looks only slightly like Michelle, but she sounds exactly like her, and Parker Sawyers becomes Barack Obama over the course of the film. The voice is different, but there’s a sort of resemblance, not to mention an uncanny assumption of Obama’s manner, a combination of blitheness, deadpan humor and sureness of reason and observation.
The community meeting scene, in which the 28-year-old Obama fills a room full of disappointed citizens with hope, is a tour de force of Tanne’s writing and Sawyers’ acting. In the scene, Obama’s audience starts off angry that their request for a community center has been turned down by the city government. But then Obama, in a speech very much in his signature style, invites the audience to let go of anger and judgment and to imagine the city’s rationale. Their goal, he says, is to “turn self-interest into mutual interest.”
This is the movie’s equivalent of the scene in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), in which the future president turns away a lynch mob through the force of his reason. The community scene is the moment when the audience thinks, “There he is. There’s the president in miniature.” And it has the same effect as the “Young Mr. Lincoln” lynch mob scene: Goosebumps.
“Southside With You” proves once and for all that a romantic film doesn’t rely on suspense. We know these people are getting together. What holds us to our seats is wondering how it will happen. At the start of the film, Michelle is very proper, almost a scold. She doesn’t want to get involved with a guy from work, especially one working under her. She’s a low-level associate at a prestigious Chicago law firm, and he’s a summer intern, in between terms at Harvard Law School.
Throughout the film, he is casually, persistently and pleasantly in pursuit, and she’s holding him off, not wanting to be taken in by a smooth talker. Lots of luck with that. The ensuing conversations are interesting and believable, and Tanne resists the temptation to emphasize that which we can’t forget, anyway: These are young people with a remarkable destiny, and they don’t even know it yet. In fact, they’re not really going to have a hint of it for another 10 years.