Sylvie’s Love review – heartfelt period romance is a thrilling throwback | Sundance 2020

In trying to painstakingly recreate the spirit of a specific genre from a specific moment in time, film-makers often fall into pastiche, focusing so hard on the nuts and bolts that they forget to include any heart. A loving homage can then feel like an exercise in technique, all style and no soul. With his second full-length narrative feature Sylvie’s Love, writer-director Eugene Ashe is paying tribute to the glossy studio romances of the 50s and 60s with the keen eye of someone acutely aware of the subgenre he’s targeting, from the plot machinations to the production design. But what makes his film so very special is his equally vested interest in matching the era’s grand emotional stakes. It’s a film that both looks and feels the part, a handsomely made love story that’s easy to fall in love with.

It’s New York in the summer of 1957 and Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) is spending the warmest months inside, watching TV at her father’s record store, dreaming of a career producing the shows she loves so much while her fiance serves in the Korean war. One day, on the hunt for the latest Thelonious Monk record, saxophonist Bobby (Nnamdi Asomugha) enters the store and is immediately smitten. He secures a job there and the two flirt over their favourite records, innocently at first but it soon turns into something more. Over the space of six years, they fall in and out of each other’s lives, with circumstances preventing their happily ever after.

Operating as both a throwback romance as well as an ode to the “women’s pictures” that existed at the same time, Sylvie’s Love is an unashamedly big movie filled with big moments and its deceptively unsophisticated brashness might not be to everyone’s taste. Because it’s not just romantic melodramas that have fallen out of favour, it’s romantic comedies, too, and contemporary audiences aren’t as accustomed to films that fall headfirst into such old-fashioned formulas, which has instead been reclassified as lazy cliche. But there’s something so charming about how Ashe recycles familiar tropes and scenes that I found it impossible to protest. It’s such a woozily romantic film, soaring and crashing with great force, taking us along with it.

Ashe, a former musician, soundtracks his film with jazz, blues, pop and soul of the time filling almost every scene, and his precise eye leads to a number of hair-raising moments matching song to emotion with great skill. The films he’s paying tribute to were almost exclusively led by white actors and there’s something quietly radical about allowing actors of colour the opportunity to inhabit such a glossy, depoliticised space as this. In pre-publicity, former NFL player turned actor-producer Asomugha expressed his desire to see a period film that had black characters experience adversity through circumstance rather than because of their race given how many films, often understandably, show the hardships faced by people of colour during this particular time. The film isn’t blind to the climate and there are microaggressions along the way but Ashe allows his black characters to love and work and exist without their race constantly becoming the defining force of their lives.

There’s a crackling chemistry between Thompson and Asmogha, a genuine pulse-quickening connection that’s impossible to feign and rare to witness. Thompson, who has been slightly squandered of late on some bigger, duller movies such as Men in Black: International and Lady and the Tramp, is on fine form here, managing to replicate the charm and style of a 50s matinee lead without her performance ever feeling like an overstudied bit. She radiates on screen, effortlessly switching from funny to vulnerable to feisty when required, the work of an actor in complete command of herself and her surroundings. Asomugha, relatively new to acting with just a few credits to his name, is equally magnetic. He’s able to combine both old-fashioned charisma as well as a nervy awkwardness and together, they spark with the sort of electricity that turns a good romance into a great one.

The plot does lean into a few too many contrivances in the final act, as one can start to see Ashe pull the strings a little too brazenly, and sometimes the ups and downs of Bobby’s music career can be a little underbaked, but by the finale, we’re sucked right back in and the unblushing grandiosity of it all makes it virtually impossible to resist. Sylvie’s Love (a drab title I would personally change in an instant) has been curiously overlooked so far at Sundance, where it received its world premiere, and is still in need of distribution as of writing but a film as big and bold as this deserves to find an audience of equal size, swooning in the aisles like it’s 1957 all over again.

Source: The Guardian

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