'Southside With You': Sundance Review

A first date for the history books.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers play Michelle and Barack Obama in Richard Tanne’s romantic two-hander about the couple’s very first date.

If Southside With You, a warm and surprisingly engaging account of the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, had been made four or eight years ago, during the presidential campaigns, it would have been accused of being outright propaganda for the candidate. As it stands now, writer-director Richard Tanne’s first feature can simply be enjoyed as perceptive, intelligent, entirely credible imagining of how these two very bright young lawyers broke the ice during a long afternoon and evening in Chicago in 1989. It was a long shot to be convincing but it plays very well, and an enterprising distributor could do very nicely with this across multiple audience segments.

The basic outline of the couple’s initial outing — Michelle made it very clear at the outset that it was not a “date” — is well known: These two young colleagues at a top law firm went to an exhibition at the Art Institute, then (possibly) to a community center where Barack gave an impressive speech, grabbed a couple of drinks, saw the just-released Do the Right Thing and, for a nightcap, went for ice cream to a Baskin-Robbins, outside of which they kissed for the first time.

The details of what they talked about and their personal dynamics are not part of the record, and Tanne’s impressive accomplishment rests in not having been intimidated by his protagonists’ stature, thereby opening the door for him to create a living and breathing picture of two people spending a few hours together, offering select details about their lives and personalities, probing, questioning, pushing things a bit on his side and her pushing back on the other.

The result makes you realize how few realistic and three-dimensional date movies have been made in an era of throbbing hook-up encounters and R-rated horny teen gross-outs. And how many films have ever devoted themselves exclusively to extensively detailing a single date, a concept that puts great pressure on the screenwriter to keep the talk interesting and avoid standard cliches of awkwardness and sexual tension?

Tanne keeps the good talk coming, along with fluctuating moods and nuance. Of course it helps that the two individuals are attractive, extremely well-spoken, serious and, due to educational success, clearly on the path to distinguished professional careers. At the outset, we see a bit of Michelle’s family life, as she still lives at home with her mother and adored father, now sidelined with MS. She lauds her family to Barack and is whip-smart, a real catch — more impressive, it must be said, than he is at this stage. His skills may be visible, but they’re not yet as sharp and wholly formed.

Trying to keep his smoking habit from her as he picks her up in his tin can of a car, Barack takes her downtown to see an exhibition of the distinctive black painter Ernie Barnes. Without getting platitudinous about it, Michelle succinctly explains the double jeopardy of being black and female at the major law firm where she’s a second-year associate, speaks about her upbringing, of playing piano and learning French in a family where “education was always priority No. 1.”

In contrasting himself with her strong family ties, Barack illuminates his odd upbringing in Jakarta and Hawaii, his parents (“My father looked like Nat King Cole and my mother looked like Patsy Cline”) and especially his late father’s “incomplete” life. They argue strongly at one point when she feels he’s passing judgment on her, but he smartly apologizes and the day goes on as they drive to a black community meeting where Barack inspires an agitated crowd to rethink and reframe its approach to gaining some much-needed funding. The basics of the man’s speaking skills are very effectively shown off in this interlude, even if Michelle initially suspects he’s brought her here just to impress her.

But that he does, and over beers in the evening they get down to some serious talk about their beliefs and career goals. (“Politics?” she asks. “Maybe,” he says.) These two really could make a great couple, you begin to feel here, as Michelle finally begins to slightly let down her very well-constructed guard.

The ending of Do the Right Thing has a strong impact (excellent period detail: a poster for the upcoming sex, lies & videotape outside the theater), and the stop for a chocolate cone afterward seals the deal. It’s been a great date and pretty damn good date movie.

The film is sufficiently absorbing and genial that whatever issues one might have about Obama as president are easily put aside for 80 minutes. It also provokes speculation as to how the first dates of other presidents and first ladies of the past half-century would play as movies: JFK and Jackie? LBJ and Ladybird? Ron and Nancy? Bill and Hillary? Saturday Night Live (or maybe Amy Schumer) might jump on this quite soon.

Very tall and bereft of Obama’s slight geekiness (a moment devoted to his protruding ears doesn’t convince because the actor’s are not), Parker Sawyers crafts an immaculately considered portrait of a man of stature in the making; the ideas and ambitions are visible in rough-hewn form, quite recognizable from what we know publicly but with a ways to go. This is an ambitious man, but this trait doesn’t define his personality as presented here.

From the first second she’s onscreen, the striking Tika Sumpter is 100 percent the Michelle Obama the public has come to know: formidable, intellectually probing and a bit fierce. She may come across as overly guarded and judgmental but, as Barack obviously decides during the date, she’s worth every bit of the extra effort necessary to know her. Sumpter brings out all these qualities and more in a spot-on performance.

Production values and stabs at period evocation are modest but apt, and the musical backgrounding helps amplify the quietly shifting moods of the day and evening.

Production company: IM Global
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway
Director: Richard Tanne
Screenwriter: Richard Tanne
Producers: Robert Teitel, Tika Sumpter, Richard Tanne
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Matt Jackson, Glendon Palmer, John Legend, Mike Jackson, Carrie Holt De Lama, Tracey Bing
Director of photography: Patrick Scola
Production designer: Lucio Seixas
Costume designer: Megan Spatz
Editor: Evan Schiff
Music: Stephen James Taylor
Casting: Tracy "Twinkie" Byrd

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Not rated, 80 minutes