Even if their names were John and Mary, the two people soon to be a couple at the center of Southside With You could make viewers swoon. Richard Tanne's walk-and-talk slice of budding romantic life is that good at expressing those small moments when love begins taking hold.
Their names, however, are Barack and Michelle — Obama and, for now, Robinson, destined within two decades to be U.S. president and first lady. On this summertime Chicago day in 1989 she's a law office associate mentoring a summer associate, joining Barack at a community meeting about a thwarted inner city rec center.
He's thrilled to spend time with Michelle, an office crush. She insists this isn't a date. "Not until you say it is," Barack tells her, coolly confident that eventually she will.
By the time Michelle does call it a date — no spoiler there — Southside With You becomes a uniquely romantic movie, not only for the future world leaders so deftly profiled. Tanne's screenplay doesn't rely upon cliches, although the flow of this date, from Michelle's initial resistance to a moment when the date may fall apart to a save by a big-hearted gesture, shows how closely movie cliches can hew to reality.
The lead performances are crucial and absolutely crushed. Not by sheer impersonation, although the actors' postures, vocal tics and expressions at some camera angles are uncanny. Tanne's dialogue and two perfectly cast actors capture the Obamas' personalities as works in progress, one layer of verbal intimacy at a time, not unlike Richard Linklater's Before trilogy.
Tika Sumpter's Michelle is already a determined woman, braced against her firm's white male dominance and the polite advances of this cocky new guy with the funny name. Tanne's script and Sumpter's portrayal underplay who Michelle will be in favor of who she was then: someone who's certain, but not yet certain what she'll do with that strength.
As Barack, Parker Sawyers can inspire double takes, but the performance reaches deeper than that. This is the president as a young man, hiding a smoking habit, driving a beater with a rusted-out floorboard. Conversation with Michelle turns to his deserter father, his mother and nurturing grandmother. An optimistic speech to the community group flashes a glimpse at the orator to come.
Michelle is intrigued but for now, this is just a date, whenever she says it is. Tanne never loses track of her tentative perspective or his persistence in impressing her. The tentative ways they approach each other humanize two now-towering figures in American culture.
The film's slimness is its only drawback, but in line with Tanne's resistance to embellish what his research learned about the date or to be overtly political. At barely 80 minutes, Southside With You is uncommonly aware of how movie matters of the heart get drawn out and matters of the ballot would distract.
Southside With You works both as a romance and a dual profile of stature under construction, years before an inaugural ribbon is cut. Tanne's movie isn't the glorifying tribute to the Obamas that partisans might expect. It's a tribute to love at first ice cream, love at first defense of a Spike Lee joint. We just happen to know what happens after the fadeout.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected]tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.