[Screen It]


(2016) (Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers) (PG-13)

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Drama: A college student and his law firm advisor go on their first date.
It's 1989 and Michelle Robinson (TIKA SUMPTER) is a young woman who still lives at home with her parents -- to help care for her father who has MS -- while working as a second-year associate at a Chicago law firm. She's determined to prove her worth as a black woman, and thus has no interest in dating Barack Obama (PARKER SAWYERS), a Harvard college student who's spending his summer working at her firm where she's his advisor.

Undeterred, he's invited her to attend a community event, although he misleads her about the start time so that they can spend a few hours before that getting to know each other. She's reluctant, but since she's already there she agrees on the condition that he confirm it's not a date. He does and they visit an art gallery where they get to know each other, all before attending the community event where he shows his leadership qualities and impresses her. As the day wears on, a spark starts to develop between the two, eventually softening her stance on the status of their outing.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
One thing people eventually ask of couples is how they met and what they did on their first date. Those asked such questions usually seem to enjoy talking about that (after all, if things went badly, they wouldn't still be together). And the answers are always all over the board from nothing remarkable happening to sparks flying, magic revealing itself and sometimes surprising or even shocking revelations come out.

And that often gets you thinking about how other couples met and what they did on their first date. Upon first hearing about "Southside With You," it got me wondering about past First Couples (as in the President and the First Lady) and how their first dates must have played out. While we can imagine what it could have been like for more contemporary Presidents and their First Ladies, it does make the mind ponder what would have happened many moons ago, such as with Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, or George and Martha Washington. Did they see a movie? (okay, probably not as those weren't invented yet). How about a kiss on the first date?

Perhaps those movies will one day get made, but this one from writer/director Richard Tanne has opted to go current and focuses on Barack and Michelle Obama and their first non-work related outing together. In a lot of ways, it's a cinematic kissing cousin to Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's characters met and walked around Vienna, all while getting to know each other. Of course, those characters were fictitious, and while some facts are known about Barack and Michelle's first inklings of romance, Tanne has had to take some artistic liberties with what they chatted about and did.

Only they and their close friends will know how accurate such storytelling guessing is, but I'm guessing the filmmaker fairly accurately got the general gist, and he certainly captures the same in the now very famous couple's personalities and interactions. The fairly short film (under 90 minutes) takes place on just one summer afternoon and evening when Michelle (Tika Sumpter) agrees to attend a community event with Barack (Parker Sawyers). She's a second-year associate at a corporate law firm in Chicago where he's spending the summer between semesters at Harvard. She repeatedly asserts their outing together isn't a date, but the twinkle in his eye and charming demeanor clearly indicate he believes otherwise, although he gives her the space to come to that same conclusion.

Since we know they eventually did, there's no real tension here, so the joy in experiencing the movie is simply watching two people getting to know each other, with all of the awkward moments, little sparks and such that occur on first dates. Tanne and his leads smartly don't try to make the characters the way we now know the couple and thus there are no strained attempts at creating perfect impersonations. While they resemble the real people, it doesn't appear any makeup or prosthetics have been deployed, but you can see and hear little bits of who and what the two would eventually become in later years (particularly in one scene where Sawyers shows early signs of Barack's signature, halting speech pattern).

There really isn't much to the film story-wise. The two coworkers meet, go to an art show, attend a community meeting and then go a showing of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." Along the way, they ask questions of each other, thus allowing for some insight into their past, present and what makes them tick. Viewers will certainly recognize such subtle and playful first date "interrogation" techniques, and the charm is simply watching the two characters interact. Even if they would never evolve into the First Couple (something neither of them can imagine in that moment), the film would be entertaining to watch simply for the performances, dialogue and the budding chemistry between the two. Tanne keeps things interesting enough from a visual perspective, while the score is terrific in accompanying all of that.

Had the film come out before the 2008 election, it likely and perhaps rightly could have been labeled at political propaganda designed to garner votes. Now that the couple is in their twilight of their White House term, it's simply a good date movie about a couple on their first date, feeling each other out (so to speak), completely unaware of what lies in store for them. Meaning it's pretty much the universal experience for everyone on their first date and thus is completely relatable regardless of one's political affiliation or socioeconomic standing. And for that, "Southside With You" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed August 25, 2016 / Posted August 26, 2016

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