Writer-director Richard Tanne's feature film debut "Southside With You" views history through an unlikely, heart-shaped prism: the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Contemplating further such forays into presidential romance is indeed frightful. Are we itching closer to a rom-com about the courtship between Gerald and Betty? Or, heaven help us, "Pizza Night With Bill and Hillary"?
And yet Tanne's film is no mere First Couple valentine. Nuanced and charming, "Southside With You" is a sunny, strolling odyssey through African-American life in 1989, filtered through two future icons as they navigate the world around them and their place in it. Tanne and his excellent actors (Parker Sawyers as Barack, Tika Sumpter as Michelle) compress into a single day something broader and more meaningful than White House trivia.
Though the movie settles into a Richard Linklater-like series of conversations and encounters, it begins with the blare of Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much" on the car radio and the unmistakable feel of an '80s movie. "Southside With You" is, in a way, a portrait of a president-to-be as a young John Cusack.
Riding in a beat-up yellow Datsun and flicking his cigarette ash out the window, 28-year-old Barack is on his way to pick up Michelle, a 26-year-old colleague from their law firm who persistently insists that they are emphatically not on a date. "Just another smooth talking brother," is Michelle's judgment, as recited here by her mother.
The Obamas' first encounters were, to an extent, sweetly old-fashioned. He took her to a movie. They kissed over ice cream at Baskin Robbins.
But the film was no mere date movie; it was Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." And their stops include an African American art exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and a community meeting in a church (something incorporated here from a later date) where "Brother Barack" flashes his speech-making skills.
They drive a little and walk a little through Chicago's Southside, but they're also passing through a larger cultural atmosphere. Barack is reading Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" before he leaves to pick up Michelle. Names of people killed on the streets of Chicago adorn a wall they stride past. Debate over the divisive ending of "Do the Right Thing" (when Mookie throws a trash can through Sal's pizzeria) engulfs them outside the theater.
Sumpter and Sawyers both, against the odds, evade the trappings of impression and give natural, intimate performances about two outsiders on their way to becoming Beltway insiders. "I'm tired of being two different people," Michelle says of being a black woman in a white world. They are both in the process of forming themselves, measuring their own ambitions. The undertow of history is all around: "Something else is pulling me," says Obama.
Inevitably, approximately half of the moviegoing electorate will have little interest in "Southside With You." But the film is essentially devoid of politics. Its tenderness, warmth and modesty (it's a mere 84 minutes long) is an all the more a welcome change of pace in this election year.
Even most of the winks you'd expect in an origin story like this aren't heavy-handed. Some are actually quite good. As Michelle gets ready for her date, her father hollers, ominously, "So what's this boy's name?"
What: "Southside With You." Directed by Richard Tanne. A Miramax and Roadside Attractions
With: Parker Sawyers, Tika Sumpter,
Star rating (out of four):
MPAA rating: PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13 — for "brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference"
Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes
At: Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)