Actor portraying Obama

A young Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) get acquainted inSouthside With You.

The average rom-com loves couples who “meet cute.”

The new flickSouthside With You is not exactly a rom-com, and it’s definitely not average. Its subject, after all, is the first date of Barack Obama and future first lady Michelle Robinson.

Nevertheless, it must be said that the two meet kind of cute. But that’s just part of the charm of writer-director Richard Tanne’s depiction of a momentous day they spend together in 1989.

They walk, talk and get acquainted, but first of all they argue—primarily about whether they’re actually on a date. As a young associate in the Chicago law firm where Barack is serving as a summer intern, Michelle insists it’s inappropriate for them to socialize. She’s agreed to see him outside the office only because he invited her to attend a community meeting in his South Side neighborhood.

It’s not until after he’s picked her up in his rusted-out hatchback that he admits the meeting is still hours away. In the meantime, he suggests they take in an African-American art exhibit and get a bite to eat.

Incensed that she’s been duped, Michelle accuses him of not respecting the precarious position she’s in as a black woman in a white law firm. Barack manages to save the day only by employing the kind of diplomatic skills he’ll need in his future dealings with a hostile Congress.

There are many things that go wrong with this kind of biographical pic, starting with the tendency to feed characters lines that will seem ironically humorous when viewed from a present-day vantage point. Thankfully, Tanne avoids this kind of silliness. Instead, he makes us feel we’re actually present at a moment that will change the futures of two smart and committed people—and, ultimately, of the entire nation.

Tanne begins by having those people played by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, who give believable approximations of a 20-something Michelle and Barack without engaging in actual impersonations. He then follows up by giving them dialogue that is sharp and sometimes revelatory.

Michelle talks of her admiration for her ill but hard-working father, while Barack admits his resentment toward the father who disappeared from his life. At times, each questions the other’s choices in a way that reveals the kind of inspirational impact they’ll have on each other’s lives.

As in the best rom-coms, we know these two people are meant for each other. And as in the best rom-coms, the future of their relationship is left up in the air until the last moment.

Of course, we know things will work out, having the advantage of hindsight. But it’s still fun to wait for that moment, which is delightfully romantic and, I have to admit, kind of cute.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Southside With You (PG-13) opened Aug. 26 at theaters nationwide.

Watch out for the melodramatic undertow

Book critics were mostly kind to M.L. Stedman’s novelThe Light Between Oceans, saying the complex characters made up for its predictable twists. I wish I could be equally kind to writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s film adaptation.

Like the novel, the film is an assault on our tear ducts. Unlike the novel, it mounts that assault with all the subtlety of a Sherman tank. (But with much less speed.)

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the film is about an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife who find a baby washed up on their beach. They then argue over whether to keep the baby as their own, especially after learning the identity of the child’s mother.

Belated spoiler alert: You don’t even get to this key dilemma until you’ve waded through more than an hour of contrived and melodramatic developments. And what happens after that point is even more contrived and melodramatic.

The story might work if the characters were fleshed out, but all we know about the lighthouse keeper (Michael Fassbender) is that he carries scars from serving in World War I. And all we know about the woman who becomes his wife (Alicia Vikander) is that she’s so determined to marry him that she proposes just hours after they meet. Two Oscar-winning actors try their damnedest to breathe life into the characters, but success is as elusive as their Aussie accents.

As if to compensate for the shallow script, Cianfrance fills scene after scene with foreboding skies and crashing seascapes, all accompanied by a nobly swelling score. But it’s no use. Despite all the visceral stimulation, the film remains an emotional bore.  

Rating 2 stars (out of 5)

The Light Between Oceans (PG-13) opens Sept. 2 at theaters nationwide.

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in The Light Between Oceans. (Dreamworks II Distribution Co.)

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