Dramatizing the first date between Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama in Chicago during the summer of 1989, "Southside with You" is basically an origin story, showing us who these people were before they became President and First Lady of the United States. It's a nice hook, and the film avoids turning into a cheap gimmick by playing first and foremost as a smart, simple romance.
"Southside with You" doesn't concern itself with politics, but rather opts for something more in the vein of Richard Linklater's "Before" films, as we sit back and watch as two people walk, talk, and fall in love. For the most part, it thankfully refrains from hitting us over the head with obvious foreshadowing: "Why, I'd bet you'd make a great president one day! (wink-wink-nudge-nudge)."
Michelle is an attorney at a corporate law firm; still enrolled at Harvard Law, Barack is the firm's summer associate. For most of the day, she refuses to refer to the time they're spending together as a date. Already facing an uphill battle to be taken seriously as a black woman in a mostly white environment, Michelle views any romantic involvement as entirely unprofessional. She prefers to think of their meet-up as simply an opportunity to get to know one another as colleagues. Barack does what he can to soften her resolve, working hard to win her over through sheer force of charm.
We follow them through the course of the afternoon and into the evening, going from an Ernie Barnes exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago to a community organizers' meeting (where Barack gives a galvanizing speech to the assembled), then a showing of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," followed by ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. In refusing to turn into a traditional presidential biopic by focusing on the period before politics took center stage, the film humanizes its subjects -- right down to the rusted out floor of Barack's car.
Tika Sumpter ("Ride Along") and relative newcomer Parker Sawyers are both quite good as Michelle and Barack. The two actors have an appealing, unforced chemistry together, and we immediately buy them as a couple. A dead-ringer for Obama, Sawyers nails the cadence the country has grown familiar with over the last eight years while capturing the man's singular charisma, successfully moving his performance beyond mere impersonation.
The script, by writer-director Richard Tanne (making his feature debut), can be a little too neat, leaning heavily on Barack and Michelle's clash of personalities, but he brings a lovely, unhurried tone to the film, letting the audience merely enjoy the company. Ditching the will-they-won't-they mystery of most romantic comedies is clearly the right choice, since we're pretty certain we know how things turn out.