Southside With You

Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise has sparked dozens of imitations, some better than others, but Southside With You is almost certainly the first time it’s inspired a biopic based on a sitting U.S. president. Written and directed by Richard Tanne, the gentle indie romance chronicles the charmed first date of Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), then a summer associate at a Chicago law firm, and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), then a second-year associate and his mentor at the same firm. 

Though Michelle strenuously insists that their outing is “not a date,” we’re already well aware that history will prove her wrong. Over the course of a single summer day, the pair wander through a museum, a park, a community center meeting, and finally into a showing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. They discuss their families, their romantic histories, their likes and dislikes — all the things a couple might on a first date — and as they learn more about each other, they come to learn more about themselves, too.

Tanne captures the power couple at an interesting time in both their lives. They’re old enough and accomplished enough that we can recognize the people they’re destined to become, but young enough that they’re not quite sure where they’re going, or how they plan to get there. The Obamas’ real-life relationship, as we know it today, is compelling in part because they’re the most glamorous First Couple since the Kennedys, but even more so because they seem to genuinely understand, support, and enjoy one another. In Southside With You, we see the beginnings of that dynamic. Barack and Michelle make each other better at being themselves — he realizes she’s unhappy with her career before she’s ready to admit as much to herself, and she encourages him to let go of the anger he’s reluctant to admit he still harbors against his father.

While Southside With You very much buys into that idealized notion of the Obamas’ relationship, however, it’s smart enough to keep Barack and Michelle grounded in a recognizable human reality. This Barack is smart and charming, yes, but also a bit arrogant, a bit pushy, a bit prone to sticking his nose in places where it doesn’t belong. We know he’s headed for great things, but in this moment he’s just a guy occasionally making a mess of his first date with a girl he likes. Similarly, the Chicago around them feels vibrant and messy and true to life. An excellent soundtrack does much of the work of establishing the city around Barack and Michelle, and spot-on location scouting and set design does the rest. The world feels lived-in, and so does its characters.

Where Southside With You stumbles, it’s typically because Tanne is too eager to paint a complete picture of this famous couple. In his drive to cover Obama’s past and future, he sometimes loses sight of the present. Barack and Michelle spend much of the movie recounting their backstories to one another, and sharing their hopes and dreams for their own lives and for the country as a whole. But their romance feels most genuine, to me, in the tiny moments when they’re not really doing either — the parts where they’re quoting TV shows they like, or hurriedly straightening themselves up when they think the other isn’t looking, or arguing about the merits of ice cream versus pie (“Who doesn’t like pie?” an incredulous Barack asks Michelle).

On the flip side, what makes Southside With You work is Parker Sawyers. Despite Sumpter’s best efforts, Barack Obama is such a large, looming figure that Southside With You feels more like his story than hers, so it’s a very fortunate thing that Sawyers is up to the task. President Obama is going into his eighth year of office, which means we’re all intimately familiar with his face, voice, and mannerisms by now. Sawyers looks kind of like Obama, if you squint, and he manages to capture his speech patterns pretty well too, but he wisely avoids the temptation to mimic Obama’s tics too closely. The end result is a performance that evokes the Obama we already know, but also gives him a warmth and an edge that he loses when we view him as a larger-than-life icon.

As a Before Sunrise-style romance, Southside With You is more successful than not. Sumpter and Sawyers have a relaxed chemistry as the future President and First Lady, even if Tanne’s dialogue feels more stiff than naturalistic at times, and the film’s mild, pleasant charms are hard to resist. But the familiarity of the story it’s telling proves both a benefit and a drawback. It’s impossible to forget what we know about the future that these characters don’t, and while that knowledge adds some weight to the sweet story we’re watching, it also makes it difficult to truly lose ourselves in their romance.

/Film rating: 7.0 out of 10

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