While Hollywood’s always been fond of the idea of a meet-cute big-screen romance, Sundance usually steers clear of them unless they happen to feature drug-addicted lovers on the lam or star Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Writer-director Richard Tanne’s Southside With You is a classic meet-cute with a twist. It dramatizes the fateful first date between a pair of real-life people you may have heard of – Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson.
If that sounds like a crazy stunt, well yeah, it kind of is. But it’s also charming, soulful, and sweet (sometimes a bit too sweet). Set in Chicago over the course of one day in the summer of 1989, the idealized film starts with the future FLOTUS, Michelle, getting dolled up to attend a Southside community meeting with one of the summer associates at her firm, the future POTUS, Barack. Meanwhile, he’s heading to pick her up in his beater car, chain-smoking and listening to Janet Jackson on the radio. When he picks her up, she makes it clear that it’s not a date. But Barack, the smoothie, mounts the kind of charm offensive that will serve him well on the campaign trail years down the road.
Tika Sumpter, a long way from the Ride Along movies, plays Michelle as a proud, slightly stiff professional woman who’s worried about the appearance of dating a coworker. Parker Sawyers, who’s a dead ringer for Obama (from his appearance to the cadences of his speech), is looser and more laid back. On summer break from Harvard Law School, he likes to flirt, tease, and shoot from the lip. But over the course of their afternoon and evening together, both Michelle and Barack slowly let down their guards through long, walking-and-talking Before Sunrise sequences that reveal how their pasts and their family histories have made them who they are.
Before the two not-quite-lovebirds attend the meeting in the projects, the two visit an art museum and share sandwiches in the park (she insists on going Dutch), where he tells her about the father who abandoned him and his hazy, druggy past, and she opens up about her father who’s sick with MS, but her model of hard work and perseverance. As formulaic and overly sentimental as some of this is, it never loses its hold on you because you keep spotting little hints of the people we know these two will become.
The best part of the movie comes when they finally arrive for the meeting at the Altgeld Gardens, where he had previously worked as a community organizer. The residents there swoon over him and it’s easy to see why when he gets up and gives a speech about empathy and personal responsibility that shows you his effortless gift of connecting with people and inspiring them. I suspect that even some of the more open-minded members of the Fox News crowd will be moved (of course, that assumes they’d shell out $10 to see a movie about the Obamas in the first place). Listening to him speak, you can see Michelle’s platonic shield start to lower.
The date continues into the evening, where they go for a drink and see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (this really happened). There’s a moment that comes toward the end of their date (at this point, it’s become that) that’s too romantic and too perfect to spoil. Let’s just say, it will make your heart melt as easily as it made the future first lady’s. After the movie’s Sunday afternoon world premiere, the director was asked if the Obamas knew about his film. He said that they were “aware that it exists” but mystified why anyone would care about their first date enough to make a movie about it. They may feel differently after seeing Southside With You. I’d pay a million bucks to be sitting behind them when they do.