Let’s be real here. SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU may be a sweet story of an epic first date largely devoid of political discussion, but that date is between Barack and Michelle Obama. Given the contentious and exhausting politics of the presidential election which Americans will be subjected to through November, few who aren’t already missing the coolest of first couples will be drawn to this indie romance. For those who have wondered what is behind that way Michelle and Barack look at each other, and how it all started, this movie reveals much about their beginnings. It suggests they may have been destined to be for each other what most romantic idealists hope to find for themselves. As such, for fans of the Obamas, it’s either great inspiration to keep searching for the someone who brings out their best, or a great date movie for progressives already happily coupled.
Helmed by first time director Richard Tanne, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU plays a bit like a based-on-real-life version of slice-of-life auteur director Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE. Much like that meandering tale of a man and woman slowly getting to know each other over one day, this new release takes place on one summer day in 1989. It follows Obama, then a magnetic young law associate (Parker Sawyers) as he attempts to woo attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), who is his advisor at their law firm. She is guarded with Obama, as she is hyper-sensitive to how her colleagues see her, a black women on the rise inside the firm. His plan to charm and win her over involve taking her to an art exhibit, a community-building meeting of members from his Chicago neighborhood, and a screening of DO THE RIGHT THING. He shows himself to be a thoughtful, passionate, and curious person, and the two tease each other, argue, speak about their fears and goals, and just generally fall deeply in like. Although the conversation is scripted and imagined, the events themselves were pieced together from news articles and a video of the first couple recounting the date and courtship. Even their first kiss is based on an interview with Barack Obama.
It must have been a fascinating challenge to play two of the most scrutinized public figures in the world, especially as both leads are onscreen the entire film. If their choices fell flat, the audience would be living with them for all of the 84 minute running time. Fortunately they are up to the task at hand. Sumpter’s Michelle Robinson is straightforward and reticent, but Sumpter (who is also the film’s producer) doesn’t try to imitate mannerisms as much as capture the mix of her elegant composure, and her analytical yet compassionate nature. Given his worldwide recognition, Obama’s portrayal by Sawyers had to have been tricky. He not only nails it, but embodies him so well the audience will never find chinks in believability. He especially gets Obama’s skills as an orator and what seems to be his easy comfort with himself.
The best romances, the great loves, are those where two people clearly become more together. What is most fascinating is we as the international public know just how well it turned out for them, and how truly well they went on to compliment and support each other. It’s the sort of happy ending that makes the story of their first steps towards each other all the more compelling to watch unfold.
4 out of 5 stars