Southside with Barack and Michelle

It’s always risky to see a movie when your expectations are high. So it was with some trepidation that I went to the press screening of Southside with You, the new biopic about Barack and Michelle Obamas’ first date.

The movie, which opens Friday, Aug. 28 at Austin area theaters, starts like a romantic comedy. We meet Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) primping and fussing over her appearance before her “outing” with law intern Barack (Parker Sawyers). Her parents smile and tease her because she insists this is not a date; she is the young man’s advisor – it wouldn’t be appropriate. Meanwhile, we see the young Barack: He is reading, smoking, taking a call from his grandmother as he casually puts on what we hope is a fresh shirt, before he departs a little late for a date he’s been trying to arrange for a month.

The central conflict: Boy likes girl; girl is determined to keep things professional.

Although Barack invited Michelle to a meeting, it doesn’t start for hours and he has an entire day of activities planned so they can get to know each other.  This concept gives the filmmakers license to wander the city of Chicago, capturing a few interesting bits along the way.

Sawyers as the young Barack does an impressive job of capturing the cadence, movement, even the look of the future president. In one of the film’s best scenes, the law student attends a meeting of his former neighborhood organizers and through his impressive oration turns their pessimism into perseverance.

Sumpter has a more difficult time portraying Michelle.  The script by Richard Tanne calls for her to repeatedly explain that the pair are not on a date, why it’s not a date, and what she risks if it were to become a date. Tanne, who also directs the film, has Sumpter sounding more like a high-strung co-ed, than the self-possessed embodiment of grace and confidence that the world has come to admire. Even her clothes feel wrong.

But those problems aren’t even the most disappointing aspect of the film – there simply isn’t enough story or depth to keep a viewer engaged. The long car rides and the overload of close shots make the film feel padded rather than layered, shallow rather than deep, and ultimately like a flimsy imitation of what seems like it was a great date.

To be fair, it would be hard for a mere movie to live up to the real-life love story that most of us imagine resulted in America’s first couple, and Southside with You doesn’t come close.

Southside With You is screening in Austin at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, Arbor Cinema and Tinseltown North


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