'Southside With You' is a near-perfect love story, date movie
Movies about presidential history tend to be academic affairs, treating the great men with dramatic gravitas and decorum. What a special delight it is to follow one through a moment in his life when he is a sympathetic, relatable young civilian whose top diplomatic mission is winning over the great girl he just met.
That's the treat handed to us by Richard Tanne's "Southside With You," a hugely entertaining introduction to Barack Hussein Obama and Michelle Robinson long before they became legendary. While it contains some minor political elements — as does real life — this is at heart a near-perfect date movie, a nonpartisan walking and talking love story.
He is 27 and she is 25 as they set off on a charming and challenging amble around the city on a summer's day in 1989. Barack (Parker Sawyers) is noticeably clever and composed. After having grown up in Indonesia and Hawaii, he has become a well-behaved Ivy Leaguer now part way through Harvard Law School.
Michelle (Tika Sumpter, who produced with John Legend), raised in South Side Chicago, is a Princeton and Harvard Law alum herself. Tightly focused and razor sharp, she's already a rising star at the Chicago corporate law firm that Barack has just joined as a summer associate. His supervisor, in fact.
'Not a date': You feel that she was always the smart girl who raised her hand first at school. Here, in their first few hours together in private, she is clearly in charge. And none too impressed when he picks her up in a clunker of a car with rusted-out floorboards that resembles Fred Flintstone's footmobile. He does not seem like the sort of fellow who would someday make her a regular passenger on Air Force One. And she silently disapproves of his smoking.
When he explains that the community center meeting he invited her to attend won't happen for a few hours, she's ticked. It is not, she announces repeatedly, "a date" that could be considered "inappropriate" back in the office. Their time together "is not a date, until I call it a date."
But he's a good people person and, as some ladies call him, a "smooth-talking brother." They visit a museum exhibit of African-American art and discuss painter Ernie Barnes' lithe, jumping characters. They have sandwiches on a park bench. They eventually attend his promised gathering, where Barack impressively holds court on how to win over white Chicago politicians toward building a community center. They stop for beers, talk some more, then buy tickets and popcorn for a screening of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." As hours of getting-to-know-you conversations relax her, Michelle begins to crumble a bit. For a late dessert, they visit an ice cream shop, share a chocolate cone and a kiss. The rest is history.
Focus: The film is sharply focused, delivering biographical facts about the pair as casually as new acquaintances would tell their details to each other. She talks about her father's ironclad work ethic and his ongoing multiple sclerosis, her family's addiction to "The Brady Bunch" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." He explains some of the differences between his parents ("My father looked like Nat King Cole and my mother looked like Patsy Cline") and his late father's "incomplete" life. You can understand why each wanted to dig deeper into the other.
The dialogue sounds and feels real. Neither star is doing a "Saturday Night Live" impersonation. At a perfectly paced 80 minutes, it's charming start to finish, and at the conclusion I felt I had a delicious chocolate cone myself.
'SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU'
3.5 out of 4 stars
PG-13, for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference