Southside with You Review: A Charming, If Unoriginal, Spark of a Romance

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Southside with You sneaks up on you, a sentiment the film’s version of Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) would agree with. Taking more than a few pages from Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, writer-director Richard Tanne crafts the first date of Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Obama with a minimalist approach. They mostly just walk and talk and observe each other, which is fine when the conversation is worth listening to, which isn’t as often as it should be.

The apprehensive Michelle resists Barack for as long as she can. The two were colleagues at the time, and Michelle has no intention of letting a man interfere with how she’s perceived professionally. But Barack is a charmer with no intention of giving up. You’ve seen this story in countless romance films before it, and for most of those you didn’t have real life to ruin the ending. Southside with You suffers from the conflicts Barack and Michelle share that stand in the way of their eventual marriage. Though those conflicts, as the blossoming couple bickers about race relations and politics, are also what separate this film from the norm. The end result is a film partially at war with itself.

It doesn’t help that Sumpter’s imitation of Michelle goes no farther than just that, an imitation. Sawyers fares much better as Barack, focusing on how the mannerisms complement the personal connection that the audience needs to make with him. But Sumpter is just all mannerisms, which really just makes their attraction feel contrived.

But the third act should sell you. The film eventually adopts a sweet, airy feel that stirs the romance pot just the right way. You’ll leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy, especially since you know things work out for them down the road. It makes Southside with You the inverse of Before Sunrise in a way. Where that film skipped the will-they-won’t-they and just let them be in it, this one takes the more dramatic approach. It makes sense, the real Barack and Michelle Obama lead very dramatic lives. But where Before Sunrise ends with one of the all-time-great ambiguous endings, Southside with You leaves you feeling safe and secure. It’s a less interesting statement on love in general, but also one of the only spots in the film that truly feels romantic. That’s a problem for the film. Even though it eventually gets there, it feels like there were some pretty big missed opportunities. But who knows? Maybe Tanne will make a sequel in nine years exploring their relationship as they entered the world of politics a la Before Sunset. Maybe when the romance is less of a fairy tale, albeit one set in the rough side of Chicago, their story can achieve something truly special. Grade: B-

By Matt Dougherty

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