Southside with You – Review (*** 1/2)

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It would have been so easy for a Before Sunrise-inspired take on Barack and Michelle Obama’s first-kinda-date to go howlingly wrong, but thanks to assured direction from debuting filmmaker Richard Tanne and two excellent lead performances, Southside with You papers over some of its more transparent scripting issues.

In 1989, young legal intern Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) arranges to meet with a colleague, Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), and over the course of their hanging-out, attempts to transform their rendezvous into an actual date. Spoiler; he succeeds.

A solid 90% of the reason of this movie works is down to Sawyers and Sumpter, two actors you probably don’t know who nevertheless give absolutely spot-on performances as younger iterations of their real-life counterparts. There isn’t ever really a point in this movie where they don’t totally convince, even when the script sometimes mangles them through some blatantly mechanical rounds of exposition.

There are a number of conversations in the movie that ring somewhat false, largely as the two talk about their personal lives in a manner far more intimately than is really believable on just about any first date. It basically feels like an excuse to provide a cliff notes dump of their respective beginnings, and while it still remains interesting, it just isn’t massively convincing as a grounded, slice-of-life drama.

Still, the pic does dig deep into their respective personalities and clearly relishes the opportunity, playfully positioning Barack as the more free-wheeling of the two, while Michelle is a more uptight but a generally caring, driven person. 

Of course, there’s zero suspense about where it’s all leading – unlike, say, all three of the Before movies – but Tanne smartly preys on the fact that most people know very little about how these two figures met, and makes the most of sequences as simple as going to see Do the Right Thing at the movies, or getting some ice cream.

Southside with You isn’t as subtle as you might hope for, but the outstanding performances make it well worth a watch for anyone interested in the humans behind the politics. 

*** 1/2

Southside with You is in cinemas now


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