“Southside With You” is familiar and yet new. In its form — two people go on a long first date and talk and talk — the movie is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” But here we also get the mythologizing of a sitting president: a detailed, semifictional account of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date.
The film was written and directed by Richard Tanne, who researched the Obamas’ first date with no help from the first family. Tanne pieced together as many details as he could from the historical record, and he made up the rest. For the record, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson really did go to the Art Institute of Chicago, and to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” They really did get ice cream, and the movie shows them having their first kiss at the time and place it really happened. But the community meeting depicted in the film might have occurred on a different day.
The casting is splendid. Tika Sumpter looks only slightly like Michelle, but she sounds exactly like her, and Parker Sawyers becomes Barack Obama over the course of the film. The voice is different, but there’s a sort of resemblance, not to mention an uncanny assumption of Obama’s manner, a combination of blitheness, deadpan humor and sureness of reason and observation.
The community meeting scene, in which Obama, then 28, fills a roomful of disappointed citizens with hope, is a tour de force. Obama’s audience starts off angry that their request for a community center has been turned down by the city government. But then Obama invites the audience to let go of anger and judgment and to imagine the city’s rationale. Their goal, he says, is to “turn self-interest into mutual interest.”
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This is the movie’s equivalent of the scene in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” in which the future president turns away a lynch mob through the force of reason. The community scene is the moment when the audience thinks, “There’s the president in miniature.” And it has the same effect as the “Young Mr. Lincoln” lynch mob scene: Goosebumps.
“Southside With You” proves that a romantic film doesn’t have to rely on suspense. We know these people are getting together. What holds us to our seats is wondering how it will happen. At the start of the film, Michelle is very proper, almost a scold. She doesn’t want to get involved with a guy from work, especially one working under her. She’s a low-level associate at a Chicago law firm, and he’s a summer intern from Harvard Law School.
Throughout the film, he is persistently and pleasantly in pursuit, and she’s holding him off, not wanting to be taken in by a smooth talker. The ensuing conversations are interesting and believable, and Tanne resists the temptation to emphasize that which we can’t forget: These are two people with a remarkable destiny, and they don’t know it. In fact, they’re not really going to have a hint of it for 10 more years.
‘Southside With You’
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference. 1:21. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Winchester.