The photograph in The Photograph is the lone portrait of the photographer herself, shown slumping at a kitchen table in a humble Gulf-side home in rural Louisiana. The man who took the shot is her boyfriend, a third-generation fisherman who's content to marry her and stay put. As it happens, it's the last night they spend together as a couple, because she's resolved to pursue her dreams as an artist in New York City and will be taking the first Greyhound bus out of town in the morning. The picture says 1,000 words: She's sad and uncomfortable in the frame, as if her boyfriend has attempted to box her into a life she doesn't want.
Writer-director Stella Meghie's half-turgid, half-affecting romance circles around the powerful idea of that shot as a means for the photographer's daughter to understand her distant mother and perhaps to understand herself, too. This structural push-and-pull between past and present — and between the humble sun-kissed idyll of the Gulf Shore and the Nancy Meyers kitchens of New York — may seem familiar from Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but Meghie seems to evoke them in order to subvert them. She answers the lily-whiteness of Sparks' characters with African Americans for one, but she also cranks down the melodrama. She's searching for human moments, not outrageous turns of the plot.
The consequence for The Photograph is that most of it is curiously flat and under-seasoned, despite two stars in Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield who have an abundance of chemistry together. Rae stars as Mae Morton, daughter of the renowned photographer Christina Eames (Chante Adams), who's having a posthumous retrospective of her work in New York. Mae discovers the shot of her mother in a safety deposit box and the film circles back to Louisiana, where Christina's ex-boyfriend Issac (Rob Morgan) still seems raw 30 years after she left. In flashbacks, Issac (played as a young adult by Y'lan Noel) argues with Christina about their future, but is nonetheless thunderstruck when she leaves without a word.
In the present, Mae strikes up a relationship with Michael (Stanfield), the hotshot feature journalist assigned to write about her mother's life and work. The two fall hard for each other, but Michael's plan to take a job in London summons the abandonment issues that have haunted her since childhood. They're too new to each other to demand or expect a long-term commitment, but it seems like one of those connections that's worth a gamble. And given the lonely life of her mother, Mae naturally worries that she might be doomed to the same fate.
Rae and Stanfield are effortlessly funny performers, but Meghie limits their spontaneity even in more casual, flirtier, getting-to-know-you encounters. She also smothers the film in a soft-jazz score that reinforces the earnest tone, as if the drama would somehow lose its power if it were played from any other angle. The Photograph always seems a beat or two slower than it should be, which makes it easier to see the gears of its plot turning away, leading the audience to unsurprising destinations.
Yet there are moments when Meghie's strategy pays off and playing the emotions straight winds up dignifying and strengthening them. The efforts of Mae and the older Issac to process Christina's loss are subtly rhymed, as they try to reconcile the love she had for them with a deeper and more private need to express herself. And Stanfield's performance as Michael seems cool and disengaged until he finally lets down his guard, and a small dam bursts in his eyes. The Photograph is a Valentine's card on tastefully embossed stationary, but at least the sentiments within seem genuine.