It’s become sort of presidential rite of passage for all but the dullest Commanders-in-Chief to be immortalized in celluloid. (Hang in there, Millard Fillmore!) But the versions we see on screen tend to exist solely in the rarefied context of their office — how these men behave, or don’t, when the fate of the free world is at their fingertips. Southside With You offers a much rarer thing: the POTUS as prequel, a still-private citizen rendered in warm, ordinary detail.
At 28, in fact, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) hasn’t even begun to consider a life in politics when he asks Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) to accompany him on what he calls a date and she firmly, repeatedly refers to as a platonic meet-up between two colleagues. Though they work for the same Chicago law firm, she’s in her second year and he’s a mere summer associate, and it will take much more than a knowledge of art and a few charming anecdotes to thaw her reserve. (Even the offer of pie leaves her unmoved: “I’m an ice cream kind of girl.”)
But because history has already told us where all this is headed, there isn’t much inherent mystery. That leaves writer-director Richard Tanne to build his narrative around something other than dramatic tension, and the route he chooses has the loose, discursive intimacy of indie cinema. (Southside has already earned comparisons to Richard Linklater’s 1995 walk-and-talk touchstone, Before Sunrise.) It helps that Tanne also grounds the movie in its 1989 setting with small but telling details — Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” on the radio, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in theaters — and that the relatively unknown Sawyers captures Obama’s quiet charisma without resorting to caricature. Sumpter is stiffer, partly by design, and the slight script doesn’t always hold up without the benefit of context. But Southside doesn’t hang on epiphanies; instead, it delivers something more modest: a tender, unrushed love story. B