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'Southside with You' recalls a very important first date

“Southside with You” – “I didn't think that it was possible, but let me tell you, today, I love my husband even more than I did four years ago, even more than I did 23 years ago, when we first met.” - Michelle Obama, 2012 Democratic National Convention

Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson met in 1989. Michelle’s Chicago law firm hired Barack as a summer associate in between his years at Harvard Law School. During that time, he asked her to join him at a local community meeting.

As the film begins, Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is getting ready for the meeting, checking her hair and dressing very nicely. Her father comments on her appearance, and she assures him that Barack (Parker Sawyers) is a colleague, and she is not going on a date.

“It’s fun to look pretty,” Michelle explains to her parents about her dressy appearance.

Barack picks her up in his older, yellow compact car with a rusted-out floorboard and fresh cigarette butts in the ashtray. When they arrive at the apparent destination, Barack says that the meeting does not start for four hours, but he thought that they could kill time by enjoying some art at a nearby museum.

Michelle did not want this to be a date, but Barack did.

Writer/director Richard Tanne offers the story of the President of the United States and First Lady’s first date in “Southside with You”. The film takes place over nine hours or so, on an - otherwise - ordinary Chicago afternoon and evening, and the picture feels organic and sincere during this extended conversation of two people. The narrative instantly reminded me of “Before Sunrise” (1995) starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, as their characters learn about one another over an evening and morning during an extended stroll in Vienna.

This film is very dialogue-driven as well, as Barack and Michelle discover important details about one another, that they would never discover during a busy day at the office. For instance, Michelle explains that her father suffers from multiple sclerosis but continues to work at the City of Chicago water plant.

In addition, part of the interest for the audience is also discovering the couple’s personal feelings. Barack expresses his frustration with his late father, because his dad never really finished what he set out to do. He also says that his dad’s life was incomplete. Michelle offers some comfort by stating that every man’s life is incomplete, and that is why they have sons: to help complete their work.

Speaking of work, Sawyers and Sumpter are convincing at playing Barack and Michelle, respectively, and Sawyers especially resembles and sounds like the President of the United States. In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Sawyers said that he was working on Barack’s voice and mannerisms for a while and figured that he could play him in 10 or 15 years, but suddenly, this project emerged. Sawyers and Sumpter share good on-screen chemistry, as Barack gently promotes their time as a date, and Michelle voices her reservations, but they start to soften over the course of their afternoon and evening.

Although their first date was long, Tanne’s movie is not. The runtime says 1 hour 24 minutes, but that must include the credits, because my watch checked in at 1 hour 16 minutes. Indeed, the picture does wrap up to its natural conclusion, but it does not exactly feel long enough for a full-length feature movie. I am glad that Tanne did not artificially stretch out the narrative to a 90-minute “milestone”, but the overall experience seems on the slight-side of cinema.

Also, much of the intrigue of aforementioned “Before Sunrise” is the entire picture keeps the audience wondering if Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) will remain together at sunrise. Here, no such suspense exists, because we – obviously - already know how Barack and Michelle’s potential relationship works out.

Still, Tanne, Sawyers and Sumpter deliver “Southside with You” with ample amounts of care and thoughtfulness in a charming character study of two exceptional individuals. The movie is a love letter to the President of the United States and First Lady, and it conveys meaningful insight into that specific moment during Michelle Obama’s 2012 DNC speech. (2.5/4 stars)

Image credits: Miramax, Roadside Attractions

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