At first glance, the idea behind the Obama biopic Southside With You seems odd, even inappropriate. A romantic drama about the love life of a sitting president?
But once you get over the what-the-heck? factor, you're likely to be disarmed, pleasantly surprised, and even bewitched by writer-director Richard Tanne's feature debut, a deceptively simple, remarkably lean, and well-paced indie pic about the young Barack Obama's first date with the young first-lady-to-be Michelle Robinson.
Relative newcomer Parker Sawyers (Zero Dark Thirty, Survivor) is terrific as Barack, embodying the character in each line and gesture without mimicking the real Obama.
But this modest chamber piece really belongs to Tika Sumpter (Gossip Girl, Ride Along), who also produced the film. Headstrong, remarkably smart, and with just a touch of vulnerability, Sumpter's Michelle really soars. If this doesn't secure A-list stardom for her, I'm not sure what will.
It's 1989, and 27-year-old Harvard Law School star Barack is doing a summer internship at a major corporate law firm in Chicago.
He has been assigned to work under a brilliant, supremely confident, and attractive young lawyer named Michelle. He has already asked her out a few times, only to be turned down.
Michelle eventually agrees to accompany him to a community meeting at one of the inner-city projects where he has served as an organizer. She'll go with him, she reiterates when they meet up, as long as he knows this is not a date.
The film's opening scenes ground each character in his and her daily existence. Michelle, who lives with her parents (played by Vanessa Bell Calloway and Phillip Edward Van Lear), picks out jewelry for the outing while fending off their questions.
Undaunted, they keep grilling her about the man she plans to meet. We learn that her father is battling MS, which makes it hard for him to walk. Her mother is curious about her date's ethnicity.
Barack is more relaxed as he lounges in an easy chair in his less-than-tidy one-bedroom apartment. On the phone with his grandmother, he's more up-front about his attraction to Michelle.
The Obamas' first date takes them to an art museum, a verdant park, the community meeting, and eventually a movie, Spike Lee's breakout hit, Do the Right Thing. They end the evening with their first kiss.
Tanne does a wonderful job of imagining the dialogue that might have taken place during this actual string of events. At the museum, the duo admire Ernie Barnes' remarkably vivid, almost musical canvases. They discuss their favorite foods over lunch, then talk about race and politics on their way to the meeting.
The dialogue has no false notes, and the two stars build characters who feel natural, lived-in.
Sumpter and Sawyers aren't exactly Bogey and Bacall - who is? - but they have a crackling energy as they exchange an almost-combative back-and-forth.
Michelle, who seems put off by Barack's chain smoking, gradually warms up as he tells her of his unusual childhood and his fraught relationship with his father. She veritably melts at the community meeting as Barack engages neighborhood men and women who feel betrayed by city government.
Southside With You isn't likely to win over the president's detractors. But it would be foolish to read it as a political work. It's a universal tale about young love, about the pressures on young professionals, and about the masks that people of color need to wear to succeed in work environments that can feel hostile.
Above all, it's a compelling example of no-holds-barred, old-fashioned romantic storytelling.
Southside With You
Three stars out of four.