“This isn’t a date,” Michelle Robinson says about a dozen times during what absolutely, positively is a date in the wonderful “Southside With You.”
An observational romance in a style somewhat similar to the “Before Sunrise” trilogy, “Southside With You” follows a couple on what turns out to be an all-day first date. As the couple picnics, dances and attends a community meeting, the film takes on a unique, ebb-and-flow rhythm that resembles how an actual date might play out: a shaky beginning, some promising conversation, a little backsliding and a conclusion satisfying enough to suggest more dates are in the offing. In fact, we know more dates are in the offing — and “Southside” feels much more consequential than your average first-date movie — because we know what follows for Michelle Robinson and her date/not-date, Barack Obama.
Their contrasting styles are evident in the opening moments, in which Robinson checks and rechecks her clothes while Obama slaps on a shirt, smokes a cigarette and hops into his rusted-out car, with Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” blaring on the radio as he heads off to the first date with the woman he will eventually marry.
Her first words to him when he arrives may be, “You’re late,” but the movie feels like it’s hitting at the perfect moment, not only because it’s an affectionate portrait of Chicago at a time when most of the news from that city is bad or because its release comes as Obama’s popularity rating is hitting new heights — but also because the Obamas’ compelling speeches at the Democratic National Convention were almost like ads for a film that purports to show us more of what they’re really like.
The performances are not impersonations but they feel right. Parker Sawyers, whose cheekbones are so wide he probably has trouble making it through doorways, conveys the dichotomy of Barack Obama, who simultaneously seems presidential and folksy. And Tika Sumpter’s Michelle is a complicated mix of dutiful daughter, independent woman and smooth operator.
As we watch these two smart and compassionate people interact over the course of a funny/argumentative/inspiring day, we’re rooting for them. In part, that’s because we know they’re going to become the country’s most prominent married couple. But it’s also because, unlike the vast majority of supposed love stories, “Southside With You” is a romance that makes it clear why the lovers are falling for each other.
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers.
Writer-director: Richard Tanne.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 84 minutes. Vulgar language. Playing at O Cinema Wynwood and area theaters.