Sylvie’s Love review

Hollywood’s Golden Age is full of grand, sweeping love stories, but that era of cinema history didn’t exactly provide an equal playing field for filmmakers and actors of color. So Sylvie’s Love, writer/director Eugene Ashe’s new grand, sweeping love story, feels less like a pure homage than him making a movie that should have existed back then but was never given the chance. The result is an exquisite piece of old-school filmmaking, one in which star-crossed lovers and rain-soaked streets and a heart-achingly beautiful score combine to transport us into a sort of cinematic Twilight Zone where such a movie would have been placed right alongside contemporaries like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, From Here to Eternity, or Roman Holiday.

Sylvie’s Love stars Tessa Thompson in the title role, a New York woman who dreams of becoming a television producer in the late 1950s, a time when it was not common for black people (let alone black women) to have such a position. She’s engaged to Lacy (Alano Miller), who’s off fighting in the Korean War, and since her TV is broken, she spends her afternoons working at her father’s record store, where she can catch episodes of I Love Lucy between helping customers. When the uber-talented but still up-and-coming jazz musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) spots her through the window, he gets a job at the record store and the two begin a beautiful, whirlwind summer romance. We discover the extent of Robert’s  talent as a saxophonist (he’s clearly the best musician in his band, which becomes a source of conflict later on), the depth of Sylvie’s love for television, and their budding love for each other, all captured through Declan Quinn’s magnificent cinematography, enhanced by Mayne Berke’s superlative production design, and backed by Fabrice Lecomte’s beautiful score.

Circumstances put the couple on separate paths, but the movie jumps ahead to their unexpected reunion five years after that perfect summer. Sylvie is working in television now, while Robert is back in New York City to record an album with his band. Lacy is back from Korea, and we discover that he doesn’t care about Sylvie’s ambition and just wants her to be a traditional housewife who’s constantly available to support him and his own career – even if that means quitting her dream job to make a home-cooked meal for a bigoted co-worker and his wife. At one point, the movie half-heartedly tries to make Lacy slightly sympathetic, but it’s too little, too late – it’s clear that if Sylvie is going to be with someone, she should be with Robert.

Luckily, the audience has long decided the same thing. This is the sexiest movie at Sundance 2020, and Thompson and Asomugha’s chemistry is so hot, I thought the screen would catch on fire. Too often, Thompson has been relegated to side characters in film and TV who always leave an impression but aren’t as well-rounded as I’d like. Thankfully, Ashe (a former musician, which explains this movie’s passion for great music) puts her front and center here, where she’s able to both heat up the film’s central love story and shoulder its emotional weight as plot developments unfold. Asomugha matches her beat for beat, bringing a soulfulness and sweetness to his performance which caught me totally off guard. This is obviously my own bias against athletes-turned-performers talking, but I was not expecting a former NFL star (!) to deliver such a heartfelt performance. Consider me humbled.

The romance is one of the few things about this movie that actually feels true to life. A musician as talented as Robert should never be stymied by the career obstacles he encounters here, and Sylvie’s TV career progresses at a lightning quick rate that would be incredulous regardless of race, era, or industry. And its ending feels oddly perfunctory, letting a bit of the air out of a balloon which was filled with ease throughout the rest of its runtime. But those are small complaints, and this isn’t a movie about reality. Sylvie’s Love is a soaring, swooning, old-school throwback that’s primarily concerned with wrapping the audience in a sumptuous cinematic blanket of jazz, ambition, and starry-eyed enchantment. And boy, does it ever.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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