We all know who the Obamas are. At least, I hope. No matter where they fall under one’s presidential ranking, they’ve still had two of the most iconic terms in history. As such, Southside With You comes with a bit of prestige packed in. This isn’t just the story of two people falling in love, but two important people falling in love. But what if we didn’t know who these folks were? Would they make for compelling characters outside of their place in history? Well, if you place them in a Chicago-set version of Before Sunrise, you certainly find out.
Southside With You chronicles the first date Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) ever went on. At first, Michelle sees this as a “business only” affair, as Barack invited her under the pretense of a community meeting. However, that sneaky devil Barack has a few other things on the agenda. They visit an art museum, go to the movies, and walk around the park, all while bonding and bickering.
In order to make a conversational movie like this work, the actors have to be completely on. Films like Before Sunrise and The End Of The Tour resonate because the two players don’t feel like performers. They feel like real people, and the conversation flows naturally. A lot of that alchemy comes from good screenwriting, but a good portion of it is luck. Unfortunately, Sumpter and Sawyers don’t exactly have that same spark. They’re certainly not bad. In fact, Sawyers in particular not only bares a striking resemblance to Obama but captures his charismatic persona. There’s just a very mechanical feeling to their delivery. The film feels like two actors walking around town, rehearsing their lines for a play. All of the moments where sparks fly are there because they’re in the script, not because they’re sold by honest performances.
The script in question by writer/director Richard Tanne isn’t exactly innovative stuff either. It runs through all the standard “deep conversation” points, without much organic build up. They burn through each subject mechanically, almost as if their topics are run by metronome –
What were your parents like?
What are you hoping to do in the future?
Do you believe in God?
It gets monotonous after a while, especially with how badly the scenes are paced. Some moments are far too brief. The general ideas are laid out but they aren’t given time to marinate. Some go on for far too long, especially a scene midway through at the community meeting in question. Every second of this meeting is lovingly re-created in this sequence. It all hinges on an extended speech by Barack that starts to just feel like Hallmark card phrases.
Tanne has a real opportunity to make the city of Chicago a character in this film. To use his backdrop as something of a chorus to the main story. However, it’s mostly used as just space to fill the scene. However, there is one moment where the movie feels truly alive. When Barack and Michelle visit the art museum, Barack starts to explain the origins of the paintings. The story he tells is rooted in culture, and while the audience looks a the paintings, we start to feel as though we’re on this date too. If only the rest of the film could have captured this.
Southside With You isn’t a bad film, but it’s an entirely mediocre version of much better films. It feels like an extended twenty-minute portion of a much better movie about the Obamas. The only reason it has gotten such a wide platform is because of who its two characters happen to be. However, their first date doesn’t prove to be as fascinating as they are. Once the inevitable full force, Oscar-bait, Obama movie comes our way, Southside With You will likely fade from memory.