Southside With You, which premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival, opens with a future president of the United States driving in his beat up AMC Pacer, listening to Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much.” Even though Barack Obama is technically a Baby Boomer (he was born in 1961), this is the closest I’ve felt to a presidential origin story that at least sort of seems familiar. (I’ve never been involved in a duel or lived in a log cabin.) Being the president still seems like a job for older people, not someone who psyched himself up for a date by listening to songs off of Rhythm Nation 1814.
Southside With You is a fictionalized account of the 1989 first date between Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) – an “imagining,” if you will. (If it weren’t fictionalized, boy, there sure would have been a lot of foreshadowing about these two people’s lives. Pretty heavy stuff for a first date.)
The thing is, Southside With You doesn’t attempt to probe deep down into the lives of our current president and first lady and find something scandalous or shocking — the closest it comes is portraying Barack Obama as a chain smoker, something we already knew — it’s just a really sweet and charming film about a young woman who isn’t quite sure what to make of this young man who works as a summer associate at her law film while he’s home from Harvard. We hear her say many times that this “isn’t a date,” but by the end, when the two are having cocktails, then seeing Do the Right Thing, it’s totally a date.
The best thing I can say about Southside With You is that this story about two people would still work even if it weren’t about the Obamas. It really does have a Before Sunrise feel to it. In conversation, we learn a lot about the two of them and their motivations and their dreams. (At this point, Barack’s dream is just to graduate from college, something his father had failed at doing.)
There’s a heavy-handedness to a scene set in a church in which some community activists ask Barack to speak. This seems like an odd place to be on a first date! But, it does give Sawyers a chance to do his “Obama giving a speech” interpretation and it’s uncanny. There’s a difference between an impression and trying to truly capture a person. An impression (like, say, Jay Pharoah’s wonderful work on SNL) is funny. What Sawyers has to do is much more nuanced and, boy, he’s just wonderful.
My favorite scene takes place at an art gallery in which Barack and Michelle discuss Good Times and how the character of J.J. was a stereotype, but developed into a character who loved to paint. (The two are attending a showing of Ernie Barnes’ work, whose painting “The Sugar Shack” was made famous by the show’s credits.) It’s a nice moment between two people who don’t really know each other, but we all know how this all turns out. And that’s what makes Southside With You work, because it just boils down to two people trying to figure out life and each other.
Look, I’m tired. I’ve been at Sundance since Wednesday and I have a terrible cold and the altitude is still getting to me and I have had very little sleep. Right now, I can’t fully tell if I’m actually writing this or if this is a dream. I hope this is real because if I do wake up and learn I wrote an entire piece in my sleep, then I have to do it over again, I will be very upset. Anyway, my point is that at this stage of Sundance, for a movie to get my adrenaline going enough that it made me want to get out of my seat and clap or dance or just move (or whatever), is remarkable because right now I am a lump of sad. But, somehow, Sing Street pulled all of this off.
Directed by John Carney (Once, Begin Again) and set in Ireland in 1985, Sing Street is about a group of kids who start a band in order for its 15-year-old lead singer, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) to impress a model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). The second this film won me over for good with no turning back is when the band, named Sing Street, films a video for their song “Riddle of the Model” in the most cheesy, mid-‘80s way possible. After the video, the crowd at the Eccles Theater premiere burst into applause. (Also, “Riddle of the Model” is an insanely catchy song.)
Sing Street is primarily an ode to ‘80s music. The fashion sense of Sing Street (the band) seems to change daily. One day, they look like Duran Duran, but then Conor discovers The Cure, so then they all dress like The Cure. Then Conor watches a video by ABC, so the band then dresses like ABC. (There’s a performance about halfway through, imagined by Conor, set in a high school gymnasium that’s a complete showstopper.)
The film is also interlaced with real songs from the era, including tracks by a-Ha, Duran Duran, and even “Pop Muzik” by M. (My one very minor quibble is that Sing Street, even though it’s set in 1985, songs from 1983 are still played like they are insanely popular and, once, a song from 1987 shows up. Anyway, who cares.)
Sing Street just never lets up with its pure joy and is impossible to resist. It makes me happy. It makes me feel awake. It’s better than caffeine.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.