Like the warm summer day it chronicles, “Southside With You” possesses a mellow, languorous vibe, an infectious easygoing charm that insinuates itself gently, then seductively, as the couple at its center experiences the stirrings of what might be true love.
That the two young people in question are named Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson almost feels like an afterthought in Richard Tanne’s modest but enormously enjoyable throwback of a movie. Imagine a cross between John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” and Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” and you get a sense of the tone of a movie that tiptoes to the edge of hagiography but never falls in, at least entirely.
It’s unlikely that Obama’s most pathological haters will want to see “Southside With You,” but they’ll be missing a delightfully low-key portrait that is as universal as it is grounded in a well-chronicled public-private life. Fans, on the other hand, will discover a movie that presents the president, not as the ready-made icon who seemed to emerge fully formed at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but as an instinctive communicator and politician, for whom the word “no” merely offers the opportunity for skillful negotiation.
Played in an uncannily on-point physical and verbal portrayal by Parker Sawyers, the Barack Obama of “Southside With You” is a gangly, somewhat cocky first-year law associate and community organizer in Chicago, who as the movie opens in 1989 has finally convinced Michelle — his adviser at the corporate law firm — to spend a day with him. Prim, direct and protective of her professional reputation in an office where she’s the only African American woman, Michelle — played in a persuasively assured, straightforward turn by Tika Sumpter — has so far made a convincing case for why the two should remain colleagues, albeit friendly ones.
But as the two wend their way through a day that will include an art exhibit, a community meeting at a church, a screening of “Do the Right Thing” and a fateful ice cream cone, her intransigence begins to soften. Sharing their histories with everything from family, religion and the psychic commute between “planet black” and “planet white” to “Good Times,” Ernie Barnes and Stevie Wonder, Michelle and Barack’s discursive, ambling date takes on the contours of romantic destiny as, to quote Rilke, two strong, self-identified solitudes tentatively reach out to protect and touch and greet each other.
Tanne, who makes an impressively sensitive feature debut here, drenches “Southside With You” with deliciously textured atmosphere and 1980s nostalgia, from the rickety Nissan Sentra Barack drives — his ashtray full of cigarette butts — to Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” that blares from the dashboard radio. Although the filmmaker has taken the slight liberty of inserting an organizing meeting where it didn’t literally exist on the day, the license gives him — and, more crucially, Michelle — a chance to see Barack in action, delivering a brilliant extemporaneous speech on the need for mutual understanding and the inherent messiness of democracy.
That’s one of the few winks to what lies ahead for Obama in “Southside With You,” which does an admirable job of keeping the focus on the simple question of whether this relationship can be saved before it even has a chance to begin. (For a minute there, in a tense, well-staged scene at the movie screening, all seems lost.) Of course, part of the pleasure of watching “Southside With You” is the audience knowing what the characters don’t — the frisson playing at the edges of a scene when Barack tells Michelle that he feels like something’s pulling at him, he just can’t tell what.
“Southside With You” is the first of what will surely be a spate of mythmaking movies about the Obamas as they prepare to leave the White House. But seen through another lens, it’s about anyone who has experienced the mystery of discernment, and heard the whispers of a still, small voice that cannot be ignored.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong profanity, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference. 84 minutes.