It's 1989 in the new movie Southside With You, and two attractive young lawyers are going out for the first time. Were their names not Michelle and Barack, we might not be along for the ride. But they are, and the ride is sweet in the idyll constructed by first-time feature-writer/director Richard Tanne.
These two not-yet-lovebirds may work together at a prestigious law firm in Chicago, but on this particular morning, it's their folks who are doing the cross-examining. Michelle's parents quiz her over breakfast about why she's all dolled up on a Saturday, while Barack gets the third degree from his grandmother on the phone.
Played by Parker Sawyers, the on-screen Barack looks a lot like the future president, though with less prominent ears. His voice is higher, but you figure it'll deepen with all the smoking he's trying to conceal from Michelle when he picks her up.
She is played by Tika Sumpter with warmth and a future first lady's confidence. And she quickly realizes that smoking's not all he's keeping from her. When she discovers the community meeting isn't for hours yet, and that he has planned an outing to an Afro-centric exhibit at the Art Institute, she's annoyed.
"This is not a date," she says, echoing words she'd uttered to her parents an hour or so earlier.
"OK, it's not a date," he replies, muttering more quietly as she turns away, "until you say it is." Still, as long as they're just a few blocks from the art exhibit, would it kill her to look at it with him?
No, it would not, she concedes. And the images they discover there prove a balm to soothe nerves. The future president quotes a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks' poem, "We Real Cool." Michelle reminisces about piano lessons and the father she idolizes. In short, they relax. And as the afternoon progresses to lunch, a stroll, and that community meeting, their verbal sparring gradually becomes conversation.
One of the things you realize watching Southside With You is how seldom budding relationships are allowed to just be on screen — not pushing the plot forward, or setting up a tense standoff or a joke. Of course, conceptually, devoting a whole movie to a single date puts pressure on a screenwriter: He's got to keep things moving, and varied, and lively, while in this case laying in background that squares with what we already know about two of the most famous people in the world. Filmmaker Richard Tanne appears to have conceived Southside With You as sort of an origin-story, with occasional shout-outs to the political-ascendance sequel we've witnessed in real life.
The Obamas have talked on occasion about their first-date-that-was-not-a-date, so its basic outline is decently well known: They did go to the Art Institute, and they grabbed ice cream, and caught Spike Lee's just-released Do The Right Thing. And if that wasn't the afternoon that Michelle first got to see Barack's skills as community-organizer-in-chief, the film makes a decent case that it should've been.
"You sounded a little professorial," she tells him, "but you definitely have a knack for making speeches."
The film isn't likely to make converts of those who aren't already fond of the first couple, but coming so late in their tenure at the White House, it at least doesn't play like a political ad.
Can't say it makes me yearn for a presidential first-date series, exactly — a flirty Millard and Abigail Fillmore? Not as appealing — but a Hollywood romance that's adult, smart and engaging counts as a rarity these days. And in that context, Southside With You is a charmer.