In our largely nostalgia-fueled culture, supporters of President Barack Obama are feeling melancholy about his departure from office. Many, after seeing the sorry state of the current election cycle, have resorted to siding with neither Hillary nor Trump, but rather Obama. Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds are inundated with posts and clickbait articles about the way the people will miss him after January 2017. Obama himself seems more than aware of his increased popularity — he walked up to the podium at the last White House Correspondents’ Dinner to Anna Kendrick’s “Cups (When I’m Gone).”
“Southside with You” is the latest product of this anticipatory nostalgia. The directorial debut of Richard Tanne, the film follows Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers, “Zero Dark Thirty”) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter, “Get On Up”) on a semi-fictionalized account of their first date. Michelle is his advisor at the Chicago law firm where he’s working as a summer associate. She thinks it’s inappropriate for them to be romantic, but he’s trying to convince her to prioritize their feelings over office politics. During one of Sumpter’s most compelling scenes, she explains that she first has to prove herself as a woman, and then must start again to prove herself as a Black woman.
Despite her reservations, they spend the entire day together, walking around art museums and going to a community center to see Barack in action, ending the night with a viewing of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Unlike the film that it’s often been compared to (“Before Sunrise”), the pacing of the film drags, forcing us to comfort ourselves with the fact that we know the very happy ending. “Southside With You” has less of an actual plot and more of the makings of a political commercial. In all fairness, the aimless wandering does feel slightly reminiscent of “Before Sunrise,” if the audience had walked into the Linklater film with eight years of preconceived notions about the plot and main characters.
The acting of the film is not so much acting as it is impersonation. Sawyers captures the essence of the President, down to his self-assured stutters and compulsive smoking to calm himself down. But while his stylistic acting remains more subtle, with only a few pure Obama-isms, Sumpter’s impression of Michelle Obama’s speech patterns is jarring and extreme. If you close your eyes, it’s like listening to Michelle Obama practice her enunciation; if you keep them open, it’s like watching a stale and tedious “SNL” sketch.
While we watch them go through the perfectly lit, picturesque day, it is impossible to forget that they are characters playing real people we know, that this is a movie. Tanne is overly cautious, not pushing into unknown territory or exploring new emotional ground. He stays safely at a kind and almost boring portrayal of two people falling in love. It’s too comfortable, shot on location with beautiful shots of Chicago overlaid with dreamy music. The film is so soothing that it lends itself to being good white noise if you happen to drift off in the theater. There’s also the contentment that comes with knowing how everything is going to work out — they may be driving broken down cars and living with their parents now, but we know this story ends in the White House.