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Southside With You

Richard Tanne’s sweet, low-key film recreates the Obamas’ first date in the summer of 1989

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Even if you don’t align politically with the Obamas, there is no reason why an open-hearted viewer wouldn’t enjoy Southside With You, a sweet, low-key film about the future First Couple’s first date. A sort-of-awkward first date that turns into a successful long-term relationship is a universal experience. Writer-director Richard Tanne adopts a similar style and vibe to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise: a walking-and-talking affair in which two strangers learn about each other and themselves.

In the summer of 1989, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) picks up Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) at her family’s home on Chicago’s South Side. Obama has a summer gig as a law associate at the tiny firm where Robinson works. From the outset, she explains that this is not a date; she is reluctant to create office gossip.

On their not-a-date, the two visit an art museum (where Obama lays down some knowledge about painter Ernie Barnes and Good Times); eat sandwiches in the park; attend a community meeting; and see Do the Right Thing, all while sharing their personal and professional histories. Robinson is measured, but not afraid to push back; Obama is swagger-lite, his obvious romantic interest tempered by a legitimate fear of messing it up. (She warns him that she has no time for “another smooth-talking brother.”)

In press notes, Tanne explains that many of the details are drawn from public sources in which the Obamas recalled their first date. One exception: The film’s centerpiece, in which Obama gives an impromptu speech at a housing-project gathering, actually occurred on a later date. But the cheat is worth it — for its peek at Obama’s early oratory and persuasive skills, and to see how Robinson notes this.

Neither actor is a perfect match but somehow it works. It’s a testament to their skills how hard you want this date you’re watching to go well. Even if every single person in the world, including you, knows how it turns out.

Starts Fri., Aug. 26

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