Film Festival Movie Review

Film Review: SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU: One Fateful Day in 1989 [Sundance 2016]

Tika Sumpter Parker Sawyers Southside With You

Southside With You (2016) Film Review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Richard Tanne, starring Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, and Vanessa Bell Calloway.

It was billed as the Barack and Michelle Obama date movie. The attraction of such a film may depend on one’s politics, perhaps understandingly so, as the film assumes a warm stance and a base of assumptions from which not all are willing to agree with or even suspend disbelief for eighty-one minutes. This is to their detriment, because the film is a wonderful experiment in many ways: a film about a current First Couple; a film primarily about a President in his pre-government days; and a presidential film that largely dances around (albeit closely) politics rather than engaging in them. This is a movie about two very different people falling in love over the course of an unexpectedly wonderful day. There is no need to take it seriously.

As a chain-smoking Barack (Parker Sawyers) picks up Michelle (Tika Sumpter), it’s made clear that she does not view this as a “date”. Indeed, she tells Barack this several times (and even insists that she pay him for buying her lunch in the park). She soon discovers, frustratingly, that their original plan – to watch Barack speak at a community event – isn’t for three more hours. And he scheduled it that way on purpose. He unveils plans to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, to which she accompanies, begrudgingly. But they soon connect as they discuss their roots, their histories, their hopes, their dreams. They recite Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool together in a tender scene full of blushing, side-glances, and promises.

They take their discussion through the park, where they begin to really open up. References are made to Barack’s childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii. He reveals his disappointing relationship with his father and his “evolving” religious beliefs; she divulges that her father has multiple sclerosis.

She encounters countless individuals at the community event who tell her that Barack is one-of-a-kind and that she ought to not let him out of her sight. She rolls her eyes – and then she hears him speak. He wins her over with his hopeful vision and reasonable, pragmatic approach to a seemingly-small and unresolvable local issue.

After drinks at the bar, a screening of Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing, and a visit to Baskin Robbins (Michelle’s favorite and Barack’s one-time employer), the energy of the universe had successfully united the pair on its way to love and political glory.

Based on a script written by director Richard Tanne, the film is a creative and fresh take on two people who have lived very public lives yet seem, at times, to be illusive and distant. It’s full of genuine humor (for example, upon hearing Barack’s name for the first time, Michelle’s father shouts, “Barack O-what?!” – just like the rest of America did), references to Barack’s smoking habit, and Michelle’s playing hard-to-get.

It’s a clever, although simple, observational snapshot of two people that almost never came together yet somehow, against all odds, came to assume the highest office in the land. They were two average people, just like the rest of us.

Its greatest strength is also its weakness: it’s heavy on the talk, something audiences might not expect. But you may just find yourself falling in love with the two of them falling in love. I sure did.

Southside With You is screening at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in the competitive U.S. Dramatic Competition category and has yet to be acquired for U.S. distribution. 

Rating: 7.5/10

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Image Source: Sundance Institute

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About the author

Drew Stelter

Drew is a 26-year-old film buff. A native Utahan, he attends the Sundance Film Festival annually. He is a member of the Salt Lake Film Society. In a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he attended the Oscars Red Carpet on March 2, 2014, after winning an essay contest through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. At any given time he can be expected to be conversing via movie quote GIFs.

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