There aren’t many politicians whose first dates with their future spouses you could turn into a sweetly charming ‘Before Sunrise’-style drama that woos you with its romance and works as biography. ‘Southside With You’ imagines Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) stepping out with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter). Picking her up from her parents’ house one Saturday afternoon, Barack hopes it’s a date and slyly squeezes in trips to an art show and the movies alongside the community meeting to which they have arranged to go together. But Michelle is resistant. Not least because Barack is her junior at the Chicago law firm where they work: ‘This is not a date’.
We know where it’s heading, of course, which is part of the fun – matching the Barack and Michelle we think we know to the fresh-faced mid-twenty-somethings we meet here, both of them gently sizing each other up, quizzing each other on their backgrounds and challenging each other’s weaknesses and hang-ups. It’s a sweet idea, nicely performed by the two main actors, and it helps that debut writer-director Richard Tanne has chosen the Obamas rather than, say, the Trumps, to explore. We like these people, they’re interesting, and Tanne catches them at a point in their lives when both are trying to reconcile their backgrounds with their professional and personal potentials.
Winningly, the film mostly manages to avoid awkward signposting to the future and his script makes smart use of the fact that near-strangers do tend to swap life histories and ambitions when on a date – perhaps more earnestly than in other situations. Even this line from Michelle just about works: ‘It’s been a while since I’ve had that kind of connection to real-life struggle,’ she shares late on, starting to soften after witnessing Barack work his magic at a community meeting.
It’s a small, succesful sketch of now-great lives, but be warned: it might freak you out more than ever about the outcome of the coming US election.