'Southside With You' Review: Michelle And Barack Obama's First Date Charms A Chicago couple go on a first-date-that's-not-a-date in 1989 in Southside With You. Her name is Michelle. His is Barack.
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The First Couple's First Date Charms In 'Southside With You'

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The First Couple's First Date Charms In 'Southside With You'

Review

Movie Reviews

The First Couple's First Date Charms In 'Southside With You'

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In the new movie "Southside With You," it's the late '80s and two young lawyers are going out for the first time. Their names are Michelle and Barack. "Southside With You" charmed critics and audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and Bob Mondello thinks it's going to be a crowd pleaser now at theaters all over.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: They may work together at a prestigious law firm in Chicago, but on this particular morning it's their folks who are doing the cross-examining - Michelle's parents over breakfast...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU")

PHILLIP EDWARD VAN LEAR: (As Fraser C. Robinson III) Where you going looking so raggedy?

VANESSA BELL CALLOWAY: (As Marian Robinson) Girl's got herself a date.

TIKA SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) It's not a date, daddy. He's the summer associate I told y'all about - the one from Harvard Law? I mentioned I worked legal aid, and he invited me to a community event.

MONDELLO: All this while Barack is getting the third degree from his grandmother on the phone.

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DEBORAH GEFFNER: (As Toot) Well, where's she from?

PARKER SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) Chicago.

GEFFNER: (As Toot) Uh-huh. Which part?

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) The side that's predominantly black.

GEFFNER: (As Toot) OK, so she's...

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) ...Yes, Toot, her skin is of the darker persuasion.

MONDELLO: Played by Parker Sawyers, the on-screen Barack looks a lot like the future president, though with less prominent ears. His voice is higher, but you figure it'll deepen with all the smoking he's trying to conceal from Michelle when he picks her up. She is played by Tika Sumpter with warmth and a future first lady's confidence. And she quickly realizes that smoking is not all he's keeping from her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU")

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) Shouldn't we be getting to the meeting?

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) We have some time. It's not for another few hours.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) What?

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) I thought we'd swing by the art center. There's an Afrocentric exhibit that's supposed to be...

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) ...Barack, you seem like a really sweet guy, but how many times I have to tell you we're not going out together?

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) Well, Michelle, thank you for saying that. You seem like a real sweet girl. But I have to correct you. We are in fact out, and we are in fact together.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) But not on a date. This is not a date.

MONDELLO: She's insistent. He says OK, fine. But they're just a few blocks from the art exhibit. Would it kill her to look at it with him? No, it would not. And the images conjure memories.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU")

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) What do you like about this one?

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) I guess it reminds me of our house on Sundays. The boys would be upstairs watching football, and the girls would be downstairs, singing around the piano.

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) Do you sing?

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) I play.

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) Any good?

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) I'm not bad.

MONDELLO: One of the things you realize watching "Southside With You" is how seldom budding relationships are allowed to just be on screen, not pushing the plot forward or setting up a tense standoff or a joke.

Of course, conceptually, devoting a whole movie to a single date puts pressure on a screenwriter - got to keep things moving and varied and lively while in this case lying in background that squares with what we already know about two of the most famous people in the world. Filmmaker Richard Tanne conceives "Southside With You" as sort of an origin story with occasional shout outs to the sequel we've witnessed in real life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU")

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) I wonder if I can write books, hold a position of influence in civil rights.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) Politics?

SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) Maybe.

MONDELLO: The Obamas have talked on occasion about their first date-that-was-not-a-date, so its basic outline is decently well-known. They did go to the Art Institute, and they grabbed ice cream and caught Spike Lee's just-released "Do The Right Thing." And if that wasn't the afternoon Michelle first got to see Barack's skills as community-organizer-in-chief, the film makes a decent case that it should've been.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU")

SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) You sounded a little professorial, but you definitely have a knack for making speeches.

MONDELLO: The film will not make converts of those who aren't already fond of the first couple, but coming so late in their tenure at the White House it at least doesn't play like a political ad. Can't say it makes me yearn for a presidential first date series, exactly - a flirty Millard and Abigail Fillmore? Not as appealing. But a Hollywood romance that's adult and smart and engaging counts as a rarity these days. And in that context, "Southside With You" is a charmer. I'm Bob Mondello.

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