Review: ‘Southside With You’ turns the Obamas’ first date into something larger

First dates aren”t easy.

There are so many variables that go into determining whether or not something is a “good” date that it”s impossible to control. If I”ve learned anything about dating during my 46 years on Earth (and that is debatable), I have learned that you have to give yourself up to it if it”s going to work at all. You cannot force a good date. You can only go into it open to whatever experience you”re going to have, and to whoever the person is that you”re spending that time with.

On the surface, Southside With You is simply a film about a first date, opening with both people getting ready and ending as they say goodnight and head their own ways again. In this particular case, the first date is noteworthy because it”s between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, the future President and First Lady of the United States. What makes the film work is that it does not simply coast on that single idea, as if we should automatically be interested just because these two people are famous now. Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter are onscreen for the entire film, and it”s far more concerned with what makes them interesting to one another on that first night than it is with any of their later fame. This is not a biopic in any conventional sense, but the way it uses this real event as illuminating fiction is impressive, and it makes it clear that Richard Tanne (who I only previously knew as an actor from a film called Knifepoint) is a writer/director worth our attention.

This is a “true” story in the sense that Tanne did his homework and he gets the events of the day correct. But the words he puts into their mouths are his own, and he uses the opportunity to explore the idea of what kind of people would be drawn to lives of public service. As in Richard Linklater”s acclaimed Before series, the pleasure here comes from the conversations between these two smart young people, the way they explore each other”s minds. For the first half of the day, they”re not even officially on a date at the insistence of Michelle, who resents Barack”s gentle advances. She”s concerned about how people will see her at the law office where they”re both working. From the start of the film, Michelle”s the one who we”re really focused on, while Barack is the force that blows into her life, pushing her towards an evolution of her opinions on many things. He doesn”t really change at all, but for Michelle, it”s a defining day, and it”s her perspective that informs the film. Tika Sumpter does terrific, nuanced work here, and I see that she”s listed as a producer on the film. This is a great example of a story that is told the way it”s told because of who is telling it, and that is richer and more rewarding for it. Michelle is keenly aware of appearances, and she has ambitions that have nothing to how cute or charming the intern at her law firm is. Sumpter does a good job charting the slow thaw that Michelle feels towards Barack, and we understand why it happens.

There”s a great scene at the Art Institute of Chicago where they go see an exhibit that features the work of Ernie Barnes. Most people would know Barnes either from a Marvin Gaye album cover or the TV show Good Times, but when Barack talks about him, he uses those as the jumping off point to talk about what the work means, and it”s one of those great turning points in a date where some connection happens and the two people both relax a little bit, reveal a little bit more of themselves. At its heart, that”s what dating is about, that process of revealing yourself to someone else, and there is an enormous vulnerability that comes with doing that. You are risking so much on a personal level when you really open up to someone else. In Michelle”s case, she has worked so hard to get to the place where she is that she feels like she”s got everything to lose if she gives herself up to a relationship. As they talk, they discuss the inequities of power and perception, and there are some very smart points made about gender inequality and racial workplace dynamics without ever turning the film into a diatribe.

Even better is a sequence where Barack takes Michelle to a church where he”s scheduled to speak. This is her first glimpse at the person behind whoever it is she sees at work every day. This is the person who is actively working to make his community better. This is the beginning of the person that he eventually became, and there”s really not enough I can say about Parker Sawyers and his performance. He looks and sounds so much like Barack Obama that it”s a little creepy, but more than that, when he”s speaking, there”s that same sense that he”s thinking his way through each sentence, that same sly sense of humor, that same cutting wit, and that same way of breaking an idea down and reframing it in a way that makes you genuinely listen. Sawyers inhabits the role completely, and with an easy confidence that is impressive. Barack Obama has been so extensively photographed and he is so familiar at this point that it seems like it would be really hard to get him right, to not turn a performance into an impression. While Sumpter doesn”t seem like she”s as precisely calibrated, that can be explained by the idea that Michelle isn”t really who she eventually became yet when we meet her here.

This isn”t really a canonization of the two of them, either. Barack smokes fairly constantly throughout the film, and he seems unconcerned with the general shabbiness of his car. They”re not painted as perfect people, already fully formed. But there is a yearning in both of them to do something with their lives, to make some sort of impact on the world, and that”s what I find most interesting about the film overall. There is a real danger that a film like this could become earnest and insufferable and even smug, but that”s not how it actually plays. Instead, there”s something sweet and impressive about these young people, faced with such promising lives and so many options, already thinking about how they might translate that into something that helps others. I”ve said before that I don”t trust anyone who wants to become President of the United States, simply because of all the compromise that is involved in getting to that position as a person. But Southside With You made me reconsider my own cynicism about why people become involved in a life of public service. It doesn”t even matter if you like the real Barack Obama or not (for the record, I do, and I think he”s going to be remembered well overall by history), because these are characters in Tanne”s film, speaking Tanne”s dialogue. It”s his exploration of the impulse that would steer someone away from the pursuit of a legal career geared for maximum profit and towards a career that benefits others in a concrete, permanent way.

Technically, the film is fine. I wasn”t knocked out by any department in particular, but it”s a handsomely-made movie on a very modest scale. Tanne keeps it simple throughout, and he keeps the emphasis on these people, these performances. Southside With You is quietly romantic, but more than that, it burns with a deep sense of optimism. These two people find a connection that goes deeper than simple physical attraction, and by the end of the first date, they”ve both glimpsed a life in which they are better as a team than they could ever hope to be by themselves. If that”s not a great first date, one worth a whole feature film, then I don”t know what is.

Southside With You opens in limited release tomorrow.