Please note that this is a repost of my review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” is sure to bring up comparisons to Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” The dialogue-driven walk around Chicago’s south side is definitely akin to Linklater’s romance, however the dialogue here is very different. Never before in movie history will you encounter a romance film about the now president and first lady of the United States. But the unique and charismatic relationship that the Obamas have now is translated well onscreen. Tanne fictionalizes the couple’s first date and while it’s about Barack and Michelle Obama, “Southside With You” maintains its own flair and personality, making it an enjoyable watch.
On a summer day in Chicago, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) is getting ready to take Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) on a date… well, she insists it’s not a date because they are colleagues and it’s inappropriate. Really, Michelle agreed to go with Barack because he invited her to a community meeting he thought she’d be interested in. But then he buys her lunch and takes her to a movie. The film is filled with highly intelligent conversation about art, the lives they lead, what needs to be changed, and the country’s status, among other things like their personal lives. And this is just on the first date.
Tanne eloquently fills the film with strong conversation, although some of it too in your face, it’s still worthwhile overall. There is a lot of ground the film covers, and since it’s only the first date, Tanne’s pacing moves from colleagues to possible romance in the near and foreseeable future. It’s a hard thing to do, to take two people and have them have enough chemistry and great interaction for their continued success to be believable, but Tanne manages to pull it off.
The use of the outdoors adds to the characters’ almost worldly and sophisticated presence and enunciates the future potential of the two. Parker Sawyers embodies Barack Obama in his demeanor, easy charismatic nature, mannerisms, and eloquence, but stops short in making a distinct separation between this fictitious Obama and the real man. Sawyers especially shines during a speech at the community meeting, which is a very stirring call to action. Tika Sumpter as Michelle oozes class and a headstrong personality from the get go, and also makes sure to be distinct but, at the same time, showing more personality and gumption than most female characters written in this kind of role.
“Southside With You” is a sweet, romantic film, but one that is layered with intelligence, relationship, and character building. There are occasions when the dialogue is perhaps too pointed, but the remainder of the intriguing conversations and romantic gestures more than make up for it. The strong dynamic between the two characters is undeniable and make the film an enjoyable outing.
"Southside With You" is a sweet, romantic film, but one that is layered with intelligence, relationship, and character building. It's an engaging re-imagining of the Obamas' first date.