(An edited version of this review was originally published in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.)
There are moments in Southside With You, several of them, in which Director Richard Tanne teases us with an unthinkable premise – what if young Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama never formed a kindred kinship and went on to accomplish all they’ve accomplished?
That’s how personal the film is in telling the story of how Michelle – with her steely stare and impenetrable demeanor – and casual, quietly powerful Barack connected, despite their immediately apparent differences and ways of perceiving the world.
Of course, we know that there is a second, third, fourth date beyond what we see on the screen, but Southside With You still manages to be an unexpected experience, driven by showing the audience how young Michelle and Barack eventually became much bigger than 1989 Chicago destined them to be.
This could easily be a “first date” story about any ol’ Sally and Joe, but it chooses to set a bar for itself by offering a glance at one of the most well-know and powerful couples in the world today, and it succeeds while still being a very entertaining watch.
To reach that end, Tanne offers a film that is consistently poignant, charming, and also very, very relevant. He struck gold with Tika Sumpter (The Haves and the Have Nots, Ride Along) and Parker Sawyers (Zero Dark Thirty, Survivor), who embody everything that has come to be associated with the 21st century Obamas – their vocal and physical mannerisms, their grounded nature – while also reminding us that this version of the future presidential duo still have some things to learn about the world around them.
Working off one another in harmony, along with Tanne’s consistently engaging screenplay, helps the audience feel warmly welcomed along for the ride of their casual-turned-intimate summer day in Chicago.
That isn’t to say Southside With You is a totally cathartic experience all the way through. It also compels and intellectually challenges us in moments of commenting on racial issues that in many ways reflect some of the ongoing national discourse of 2016. By touching on the social atmosphere of the late 1900s, we’re reminded that while much has changed for Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, it has not been so for others they may have interacted with in southside Chicago.
The film also explores Barack’s complicated family history, one he dwells on consistently despite, as the film shows us, already playing a vital role in his community.
The film also comments on the consequences of judgment, as well as the sometimes difficult task of asking ourselves if we truly are where we deserve to be. In that vein, Tranne could have spent some more time exploring the titular “southside” of Chicago that hardened Michelle and Barack into the leaders they are, but he still strikes an acceptable balance between their environment and themselves as people navigating it.
While delving into these subjects, the film’s tone evolves rather nicely when it could have whisked us away to a place that is grim and obscure just as we’ve become accustomed to the generally light hearted nature of Southside With You.
Tanne respects the audience with his direction, and by keeping his focus on two young people navigating issues that anyone else could be trying to solve. At its core, it remains very much a film about how different Michelle and Barack were and are, in a way that is complimentary.
Southside With You is a film that definitely relies on dialogue, and it delivers on that front for the most part. From it’s buoyant opening moments, the writing is engaging and thoughtful, thrusting us into the psyches of two individuals who are at first glance different in every way. At the same time, it manages to be humorous and very tight, keeping the film rolling along at a lively pace.
It’s also a deeply layered screenplay to be sure, and while it doesn’t quite provide the payoff on every concept it touches on in its 84-minutes run time, it is still an immensely satisfying experience to behold.
Of course, the film has its winks and inevitable foreshadowing at the figures Michelle and Barack are to become, but it’s subtle enough so as to stay focused on this on-screen iteration of the pair. And while the story might leave us wanting just a little bit more, it’s a small complaint when the whole world already knows that this story is only just beginning when the credits roll.
In a Nutshell
While not the most memorable of films, Southside With You is sweet and engaging as it pulls back the curtains on the Obamas while touching on relevant contemporary issues.
7.5 / 10
Southside With You is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference
Starring: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
Directed by Richard Tanne