★★★★

The Photograph, from writer/director Stella Meghie (The Weekend), is a tale of two people connected by the life, and death, of a well-known photographer. While some filmmakers flounder when trying to wear both hats, Meghie’s grasp of what she wants out of her tight script results in something subtle, but exceptional.

Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) is a New York magazine writer on assignment in his home turf of Louisiana bayou country, doing an article on the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill. While interviewing a resident, Isaac (Rob Morgan), he notices a photograph on the mantle of a young woman, Christina (Chante Adams). As a result, he hears a little of Isaac’s regrets that have nothing to do with the storm. Meanwhile, Mae Morton (Issa Rae) is dealing with the death of Christina, her mother that was never close to her. She discovers the same picture in her safe deposit box, along with two letters. The article and the notes cause Michael and Mae to intersect, feeling an immediate spark for each other. But both need to come to terms with who they are and what they truly want if their relationship is to grow.

The dialogue in the film has a relaxed easiness to it, making the story look and feel like a real-life experience. Instead of traveling from point A to B to C like so many previous romance films, there is a more natural progression. Rather than a massive roadblock, there are bumps, indecisiveness, and doubt much more reminiscent of reality than something scripted. Of particular note is the more true-to-life way the characters handle finding things out about each other’s past. There are some issues with transitions from present to past and back in the form of abrupt changes that make things a little confusing at times. A small caption identifying the date appears once and adding these as needed would have eased this problem. One thing that helps is the careful details in the settings that identify the difference between time periods.

The acting throughout the film is sublime, a nod to the exceptional direction by Meghie. Instead of having her performers play the roles, she has them be the characters. As the writer, she knows what she wants the actors to show the audience. The dialogue helps the performers along in this, as though these are things each would naturally say anyway. Rae and Stanfield pull off solid, natural performances as the developing couple. But both Rob Morgan and Y’Lan Noel (old and young Isaac Jefferson, respectively) are the centerpieces whenever they are on the screen, overshadowing the leads each time.

The locations and sets add to the realism, whether it’s the bustle of a New York City publishing house or a Louisiana bayou filled with fishing vessels. One locale, in particular, portrayed in both Christina and Mae’s time periods, shows how little some things change despite decades between them. The music in this scene and most others sets the mood without overshadowing the emotional journey of the characters.

In The Photograph, filmgoers shouldn’t expect the usual storybook ending of most romances. Instead, there is a much more subtle, realistic ending that feels entirely natural. Given how the tale progresses, the closure is still picture-perfect.