Blu-ray Review: Southside with You

By , Contributor
Writer-director Richard Tanne gave his Barack and Michelle Obama origin story a great title: Southside with You. In some other territories, that title was changed. In France the film carries the more generic title First Date, which could just as easily be a teen comedy or maybe a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. But Southside with You conveys a sense of location (Chicago's south side, to be more specific) and a casual air that perfectly suits the deceptive nonchalance of Tanne's film. The soundtrack is loaded with familiar R&B hits, some (like Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much" and Soul II Soul's "Keep on Movin'") evoking the film's 1989 setting. Where pop tunes don't fit the bill, Emmy-nominated composer Stephen James Taylor's score evokes a dreamy, gentle atmosphere.

Southside is Tanne's first film as a director and—despite its utter simplicity—it's a highly ambitious gambit. He's taken the fabled first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson and created a piece of speculative fiction. It's like Richard Linklater's Before films crossed with Michael Lindsay-Hogg's Two of Us. There's no doubt Tanne is aware of the historical import of what he's depicting, but he's careful not to weigh down the film with too heavy-handed of foreshadowing. He presents Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) as everyday people, more or less, each with their own sense of destiny. She's a lawyer whose agreed to attend a community meeting with her associate, law student Barack—never explicitly intended to be a "date." But it pretty much is, and both parties seem aware of that. 
 
southside with you tika sumpter.jpg Over the course of a brisk 84 minutes, Tanne strolls through the events of what turns out to be a day-long excursion. They visit an art museum, do a lot of walking and talking, and wind up catching the most noteworthy movie of the year—Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (Barack's diplomatic interpretation of the film's controversial ending eases potential tensions between Michelle's white senior partner, who they encounter upon exiting the theater—perhaps Tanne's most effective display of the future president's political savvy).

Along the way they broach topics both large ("Do you believe in God?" inquires Barack) and small (favorite ice cream flavors; Barack begs off having tired of the dessert after a summer working at Baskin-Robbins, an eatery that holds a proud place in the Obama love story). Michelle is a woman of carefully-chosen words, a bit buttoned-down and starchy—proudly proclaiming herself a Brady Bunch fan when Barack brings up Good Times. Barack is a chain-smoking, junker-driving, charmingly smooth talker. But when they eventually make their way to the community meeting that served as the impetus for their "not a date," he effortlessly slips into the presidential mode we've come to know over the last eight years. 
 
southside with you parker.jpg Many critics (most of whom received the film quite well) have delved into the socio-political aspects of this fictionalized account of a single day in the formative years of a future president. I'm not gonna even try (I'd be way out of my depth). Approached simply as a romantic drama, Southside is an engaging glimpse at the early lives of two people who would later make history. It serves as Tanne's fond farewell to the Obama's in the waning days of their time in the White House. Of course it's highly idealized and shaped by someone clearly a fan of the 44th First Family—this isn't a documentary and Tanne seems to know that. The plot outline may be based on real, verified events of that day, but obviously no one was tape-recording everything the new couple said to each other. Would Southside with You work purely on its own terms if these characters were just a future John and Jane Doe? That's beside the point—they're not that, a fact which cannot be separated from the film. Their conversations throughout, by turns off-handed and probing, carry the film.

Lionsgate issues Southside with You on Blu-ray (also DVD and Digital HD) on December 13. The Blu-ray features a commentary track by writer-director Richard Tanne. There's also a selection of minimally-animated posters advertising the film, each set to music (this is one of the more bizarre, time-wasting "special features" I've seen—spend the time with Tanne's thoughtful commentary instead).

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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