It’s safe to say the lush, utterly romantic “Sylvie’s Love” is nothing less than a milestone in the history of African American cinema. Urbane, smart and heart-wrenching, the Sundance favorite, premiering this week on Amazon Prime, is the equivalent of what “Crazy Rich Asians” achieved in casting a positive light on a vastly underserved market of American minorities. And in the process creating a potential crossover hit exceeding far beyond its target audience. In other words, you don’t need to be Black to melt in the presence of a dreamy, star-crossed romance in which writer-director Eugene Ashe reimagines a mid-century America where a young Black woman can realize all of her Mary Richards-type dreams.
All that’s missing is the tossing of the blue, knit beret high into the brisk Minneapolis breeze. In fact, I found it impossible not to think of Mary Tyler Moore’s iconic trailblazer while watching Tessa Thompson’s Black counterpart, Sylvie Johnson, effortlessly defy racial barriers in 1960s New York City, while ascending in an industry thoroughly dominated by white males. Revisionist history, yes, but also a fantasy you so wish were true in the months leading up to the enactment of 1964’s Civil Rights Act. That aspect of “Sylvie’s Love” alone would be enough to sustain, but Ashe (a distant relation to tennis great, Arthur Ashe), deepens Sylvie’s story by providing her with a hunky jazz musician to fall in and out of love repeatedly with over an eventful six-year period from 1957 to 1963.
He’s played by former NFL defensive star Nnamdi Asomugha (husband of actress Kerry Washington), and his dreamy Robert is just what the love doctor ordered in lighting a fire in Sylvie’s flame-resistant loins. But as Taylor Swift sings in her fabulous tune, “The 1,” Ashe is mindful that the greatest loves of all time are over now. And so it is for Robert and Sylvie, as they chase their respective dreams to the detriment of a romance that never seems to work for both at the same time. She’s engaged, he’s got a long-term gig in Paris; and on and on it goes as they continually cross paths without ever finding the right moment to make love happen. Ashe renders it achingly, and yes, a little too predictable, but if you’re a fan of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor romances “Magnificent Obsession” and “All that Heaven Allows,” you’re in for an eye-popping treat.
Ashe follows the Sirk playbook to a T, unashamed to ladle on the corn as well as swanky glitz. It’s dazzling and just a little bit intoxicating. But it’s the fabulous Ms. Thompson who keeps you glued with yet another of her high-caliber turns. This one is even more outstanding because Ashe’s script doesn’t always serve her well in a story that often feels underwritten, and worse, unimaginative. At times, I found the dialogue so predictable, I was uttering the next line to myself far before the words left the mouths of his actors.
What the script lacks in gravitas and surprises, is easily compensated by the candy-colored sets and evocative Technicolor backdrops of a city - and restless hearts - that never sleep. Normally, I turn my nose to melodrama, but Ashe renders it so charmingly you can forgive the clunky lines and preposterous coincidences in which characters unrealistically stumble into each other in halls, street corners and, yes, Detroit auto factories. Because of that, “Sylvie’s Love” seldom clears the modest heights it sets for itself. Other than Thompson and Aja Naomi King as Sylvie’s civil-rights activist buddy and romantic confidant, the ensemble is surprisingly flat. That includes Asomugha, one of the film’s producers, whose acting skills aren’t nearly as fluent as his shutdown of the NFL’s best wide receivers. To say his readings are clunky is being generous. But God is he a stud; and for the film’s target female audience, Asomugha more than fits the sexual fantasy bill.
To his credit, he also sells his character’s joys of sax in convincing musical performances overdubbed by dexterous pros. And speaking of music, the film is glorious in its liberal use of jazz favorites, some sung by such diverse golden voices as Doris Day, Nancy Wilson and Diahann Carol, all of whom receive tributes in the final credits.
As a recording artist turned filmmaker, Ashe is clearly making the most of an opportunity to marry his two favorite artistic passions, movies and music. In an alluring display on flash and swoon, he proudly wears his heart on his sleeve. But his soulfulness and his love of love is written all over him.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cast includes Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Eva Longoria and Rege-Jean Page. Premiers Dec. 23 on Amazon Prime.
(PG-13 for smoking and some sexual content.)
This article originally appeared on Taft Midway Driller: Movie review: Tessa Thompson shines in lush, romantic ‘Sylvie’s Love’