“Southside with You” is, quite literally, the ultimate date movie, a charming romantic comedy about two people who are clearly fated to be together.
The action takes place on a summer day in Chicago in 1989. He’s a brash African-American summer associate at a prestigious Chicago law firm. She’s a second-year associate at the same firm. He keeps asking her out, but she keeps refusing. She’s been assigned to be his mentor, and as the only African-American woman at the firm, she feels that her behavior is under intense scrutiny from their colleagues.
He finally wears down her resistance; she agrees to go to a community meeting with him, but insists it is not a date. It turns out he has a full day planned: a visit to an art gallery, a picnic lunch, the community meeting (where he is the featured speaker) and a screening of Spike Lee’s newly released “Do the Right Thing.”
They spend the day getting to know each other. He learns that she likes chocolate ice cream; she learns that he lost his taste for ice cream after working at Baskin Robbins. She talks about growing up in Chicago; he talks about growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He tries (unsuccessfully) to hide his smoking; she ignores the hole in the floorboards of his beat-up car. She worries about her father’s health; he is still angry at his late father for deserting the family. They’re both ambitious but deeply committed to social justice and worry if they can maintain their ideals while working for a large corporate law firm.
What gives this appealing romcom added weight are the names of the couple: Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Although the young couple has no idea what’s in store for them, or even if they will have a second date, the audience knows they’re headed for the White House.
Writer/director Richard Tanne handles the story with a deft touch. The dialogue is natural and believable. The banter between Michelle and Barack crackles with intelligence and electricity. The events of the movie are actually pieced together from several dates, but Tanne’s script has a strong organic flow. With a running time of less than 90 minutes, the story moves along briskly, although the pacing occasionally flags.
Tanne is given strong assistance from Patrick Scola’s cinematography, which lovingly captures the Southside of Chicago with colorful strokes, and from Stephen James Taylor’s bouncy score which weaves together Janet Jackson, Martha Reeves and a new song by John Legend, who also served as an executive producer of the movie.
Tika Sumpter (HBO’s “Bessie” and OWN TV’s “The Haves and the Have Nots”) and Parker Sawyer wisely do not try to impersonate the famous couple (although Parker does bear a resemblance to Barack Obama and is known for his sharp impersonations). Instead they fill in the broad physical outlines of their characters and focus on fleshing out the prickly passions that both draw the couple together and threaten to push them apart. Their performances are excellent.
Throughout the day, things are touch and go between the young couple, which gives the movie an unexpected layer of suspense. How will these ever get to a second date?
Luckily, after embarrassing Michelle outside the movie theater, Barack saves the date by buying her a chocolate ice cream cone. The rest, as they say, is history, and a reminder that a stop for ice cream is not a bad way to end a night out at the movies.
“Southside with You” is a delightful and passionate portrait of an idealistic young couple whose first date will lead to them becoming the First Family. It’s a lovely and heart-felt antidote to this season of poisonous political rhetoric.