Barack and Michelle Obama’s daylong first date is a slim premise for a movie. But the new “Southside With You” tries it anyway — and while it does find that premise stiff and confining, that’s offset, partially, by an inherent sweetness that makes it easy to like, if not quite love.
At a mere 84 minutes, the movie — writer-director Richard Tanne’s debut effort — is the length of a Lifetime or Hallmark movie sans commercials. In terms of scale, it certainly wouldn’t look out of place in those venues. In fact, the exercise has the feel of a one-act play — “When Barack Met Michelle” — with two characters primarily holding center stage.
The somewhat fictionalized account is nevertheless getting a theatrical release, perhaps a sign of nostalgia that’s already setting in during the waning days of Obama’s presidency.
After a brief introduction as they separately prepare for the big day, Barack (Parker Sawyers) picks up Michelle (Tika Sumpter) in a run-down car with a hole in the floorboard. Establishing that it’s 1989, Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” blares on the radio.
Michelle is clearly attracted to Barack but reluctant to date him. As his advisor during Obama’s stint as a summer associate in the corporate law firm at which she works, she’s concerned about optics and about becoming fodder for office gossip.
“This is not a date,” the then-Ms. Robinson announces tartly, insisting that would be “inappropriate,” while Barack steadily seeks to charm and win her (and by extension, the audience) over.
Many events that occupied that fateful day have been documented — among other things, the two attended an art exhibit and saw Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” — but Tanne has moved a community meeting into the mix too. That offers a chance to see Obama’s early gifts as an orator, but also fosters a slightly awkward perception that he was essentially showing off by bringing Michelle along.
Mostly, the movie is a conversation. The two talk shop, religion, family, Stevie Wonder’s music. They discuss being African-American at Ivy League schools, and in a corporate environment that forces them, Michelle asserts, to work twice as hard.
Michelle gets irritated when Barack suggests she’s unhappy because her clients don’t engage her passions.
It’s all a bit herky-jerky, smoothed out by the engaging performances, with Sawyers conjuring the image of a young Obama without slipping into impersonation. Sumpter (one of the movie’s producers, along with John Legend and Tanne) has the more difficult task due to the gamut of conflicting emotions Michelle must experience within this truncated time frame.
Despite her resistance, Michelle agrees to keep hanging out, as the afternoon bleeds into the evening. If Barack labors a bit to continue the date and maintain her interest, narratively speaking,
Tanne faces a similar challenge in prolonging the movie.
Knowing where it all ultimately leads, of course, is part of “Southside’s” appeal, as is the way the movie replicates this time and place in both of their lives. At its core, the story is an unabashed romance, less concerned with depicting “Young Mr. Obama” than the seeds that blossom into what is to outward appearances a long and successful marriage.
Still, watching a first date — even one this significant — has its limits. And while “Southside With You” nicely conveys a broader, more intimate portrait of the First Couple, the movie probably would have been enriched if Tanne hadn’t hemmed himself in so much with the conceit and instead traced more of the early stages of their courtship.
“Southside With You” opens August 26. It is rated PG-13.