On a summer's day in 1989, a law associate named Barack Obama used all his charms to woo attorney Michelle Robinson. Southside with You brings that magical encounter to life as it follows Barack and Michelle on a day-long date that takes them from an art exhibit to a screening of Do the Right Thing to an unforgettable first kiss.
It's a strange world we live in where a prominent public official, namely the President of the United States can still be in office and yet, there's already a movie about the man's life coming out. This isn't exactly new. Oliver Stone attempted a similar venture with 2008's 'W.' In that case, the film in question was largely about events that were well known and somewhat verifiable - if perhaps a bit exaggerated. Then we come to 2016's 'Southside With You' from director Richard Tanne. As a movie in a day sort of story, this film takes on the structure of Linklater's 'Before Sunrise,' but it takes the audience's knowledge of the future President of the United States and First Lady for granted and struggles to create compelling characters.
This is not a date. Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) keeps having to tell everyone around her that the young - yet handsome and charming - law associate at the firm named Barack (Parker Sawyers) is just a colleague. The two of them are just going out on a nice summer weekend afternoon to go to a community outreach event Barack thought she would be interested in. It's not a date… until it becomes a date. As Michelle tries to resist the obvious affections from the young handsome man from Harvard, it gradually becomes harder and harder for her to deny his many admirable qualities. But it's not a date, even if Barack hopes that it will become something more. Together, the pair will share a once in a lifetime afternoon that will change both of their lives.
First dates are magical. It's the moment you remember just as well as the first time that you and your significant other first set eyes on one another and felt that instant spark of attraction. That electric chemistry that overrides all rational thought, quickens your pulse, and perhaps even makes it difficult to breathe when you're around each other. It's a powerful feeling and one we all feel a version of, however, that feeling you share with your one true lobster is unique between the two of you. You can't make other people feel the same thing because they can't possibly understand your version of crazy stupid love. All you can do is tell the tall tale of how you met and how that first date went. Was it a sweeping epic with windblown dresses and passionate kisses against the backdrop of a fire-red setting sun? Or was it an absolute disaster from start to finish? Whichever way it went, it's your experience that you tell friends about. Your friends love the story because your idiotic dopiness makes it a wonderful story. Seeing a first date unfold just makes it all feel mundane and ordinary. That's the trap 'Southside With You' falls into.
When you have a President and a First Lady as young and youthful as the Obamas, it's understandable that people would in some way find them relatable. They both came up from modest means. They worked hard in their communities. They earned top-tier educations and became upright working professionals in a Chicago law firm where they happened to meet for the very first time. The story of how they met, how Barack wooed Michelle, took her to one of the community organizations he helped organize, and how they fell in love is a cute story. But it's only cute when they tell it. I don't recall who was interviewing them, but the question came up and instantly the pair turned into lovable dopey puddles of mush as they talked about each other. Unfortunately, that same goofy lovable stuff that would make Barack and Michelle relatable as characters and as people in a movie doesn't appear in 'Southside With You.'
To all their credit, Tika Sumpter as Michelle and Parker Sawyers as Barack are terrific. Individually and in certain moments, the pair look and sound the part of the Obamas we've come to know over the last eight years. Where things start to go a bit awry is with the film's script from Writer/Director Richard Tanne. The conversations and the dialogue within those moments held between Barack and Michelle on their magical first date don't have the feeling or ring of genuine budding love. They honestly sound more like job interview questions at times and as a result, the film loses a lot of heart. There are some very good moments, in particular, the scenes surrounding the community event and later when Barack buys Michelle a chocolate ice cream cone are wonderful. The characters feel relatable in these moments. You may already know where and how their lives are going to end up twenty years later, but in those fleeting moments, there is a bit of mystery. Will they stay together? Will their romance last or is it an infatuation? That's the excitement of love and falling in love with someone else; those big unanswerable questions that ultimately force you to take a leap of faith and hope it works out. Taken as a whole 'Southside With You' doesn't give you enough of that mystery.
'Southside With You' is certainly a pleasant little film. It may have a bit too many platitude-laden conversations about "the way things are and how the world works," but its heart is in the right place. If the script had been a bit tighter, had there been more time for us to see these two come together so the film wasn't packed into a single day there might have been some more meat on the bones. As it stands, 'Southside With You' is a perfectly innocuous a-political romantic entertainment that could have used a little more genuine romance. See it for the terrific performances, Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are two terrific young actors with bright futures ahead of them.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Southside With You' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate and is pressed onto a Region A BD25 disc. The disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork and comes with a Digital HD voucher slip. The disc loads to trailers for other upcoming Lionsgate releases before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
'Southside With You' arrives with a pleasing 1080p 2.35:1 transfer. Colors are rich with bright greens and golden tones in an effort to recapture a more period late-1980s feel to the image. There is a nice bit of summer haziness to the image that gives it a dream-like quality to it without impacting detail levels. Details, facial features, and production design work are fairly routine here. The film was shot fairly cheaply in Chicago and it's apparent that camera angles and locations were chosen to avoid the cost of having to digitally alter the city skyline keeping our lead actors front and center most of the film. Flesh tones appear accurate and there isn't any bizarre color grading allowing the image to retain a natural life-like quality. Black levels are deep and inky with plenty of shadow separation giving the image a strong three-dimensional appearance. A time or two I did notice some slight noise and an instance or two of banding, but those are very few and far between to the point you may not even notice them at all. A fine transfer and a very pretty looking film.
'Southside With You' arrives with a balanced and effective English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix. As a very quiet and conversationally driven film, it's easy to suspect that through most of the film the front/center channels are the only ones being engaged. For several stretches, there are many moments where there is little to no surround activity. However, when the lead actors enter a park or find themselves at the community event in a large open church, there is plenty of background ambient sound effects working as well as some extra characters shifting in their seats to fill out the surround elements. The rest of the mix is well balanced and keeps largely to the midranges. Scoring by Stephen James Taylor helps fill in a number of quieter moments without sounding too intrusive. All in all, this is a fine audio track that serves the nature of the film well.
Audio Commentary: Writer/Director Richard Tanne flies solo for what is otherwise an engaging and interesting commentary track. It's nice to hear his thoughts about the process, shooting with the actors, and crafting the story the way he did - even if I don't think it was quite as successful as he aimed for it to be.
Original Artwork and Animations: (HD 12:41)
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:32)
'Southside With You' may not be the heart-sweeping romance film of the ages, but it does have its charms. With some terrific performances, 'Southside With You' is at the very least a watchable 80 minutes. Some may not be pulled in by it, but I can see others being wooed by its charms. Lionsgate delivers 'Southside With You onto Blu-ray in terrific order with a beautiful video transfer and a solid audio mix to match. Extra features are a bit slim considering the subject matter. Those looking for a nice and pleasant uncomplicated romance should enjoy this one. All others, consider it worth a look.