Movie review: Sylvie’s Love

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

If romance existed solely in the world of the fantastical and the fairytale, then every great meeting of heart and mind would proceed unfettered and unencumbered by the tedious demands of our all too banal world.

But alas we do not live in the realm of sweeping, horizon-free love, and so when great, all-consuming passion seizes us, the kind that demands we give into wholly and completely, we all too often find our heart running hard up against the exhaustive strictures of obligations of an altogether more grounded nature.

That unpalatable truth is on full agonising display in the glorious melodrama of Sylvie’s Love, written and directed with heartrending nuance and beauty by Eugene Ashe, a film which understands all too well that the heart cannot always have what it so desperately wants.

Or at least, not straight away.

For a good part of Sylvie’s Love, it appears that the eponymous protagonist, played by Tessa Thompson, will never be able to meet her heart’s insistent demands that she give into its runaway romantic demands as the daughter of record store owner, Jay Johnson (Lance Reddick) falls headlong in love with new employee Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha).

The big problem here is not that Robert is good romantic material; in so many ways, the sweet, funny, handsome, supremely gifted sax player is everything a woman could ever ask for.

Certainly, Sylvie is almost immediately smitten, despite her loud and vociferous initial ambivalence, with the man who her cousin Mona (Aja Naomi King) agrees is perfect for her.

No, the problem with this match made in whichever heaven you care to believe in is that Sylvie is already engaged to Lacy (Alano Miller), the “right” kind of man as far as Sylvie’s mother Eunice (Erica Gimpel) is concerned, given that he’s rich and connected, and the only possible choice for her daughter.

Alas, Sylvie’s heart vehemently disagrees.

Despite her best, admittedly tepid attempts to keep the handsome and charming Robert at a socially acceptable arm’s length, Sylvie finds herself doing all sorts of things she shouldn’t do with a man who fits the hole in her heart just perfectly.

Sylvie’s Love is, in keeping with many a melodrama, not exactly anchored to the full spectrum of reality, happily playing around with all kinds of narrative convenience if it keeps the story humming along.

For instance, when Sylvie lands a job as a TV producer’s assistant to Kate Spencer (Ryan Michelle Bathe), she does so with next to no experience, seamlessly seguing into the role as if borne to it.

And in many ways she is, a devotee of television programming who admits to an enraptured Robert that she has watched every episode of every TV program going, who wants nothing more than to work in the industry that has made her so happy for so long.

At the time, Sylvie lands her dream job, five years have elapsed between her summer romance with Robert and her commitment to marrying Lacy and raising their daughter, and she is expected, as all good 1950s housewives – the movie roughly spans 1957 to about 1963 – to not let any outside activities interfere with her domestic responsibilities.

Even so, time and again, she gets away with blue murder, all in service of a plot which is really only interested, and to be fair, it’s flagged well and truly in the title, whether she and Robert will find a way around the myriad obstacles in their way to be together.

You hope that’s where it’s all heading but this is a melodrama, a genre which by definition does not always guarantee happy endings, and so you cannot know for certain if Robert and Sylvie will find their own brand of happy-ever-after.

Even given the film’s stated objective that it’s all about love writ large, and the way the heart and the mind are often in romance-addling conflict, it is interesting how many narrative threads are let slip not fully explored and how many of its more vaunted objectives, storytelling wise never really amount to much.

For instance, the idea of a black TV producer in the late 1950s is big news and yet while that fact is acknowledged, it’s amazing how little fuss is made of it and how easily both Kate and Sylvie are prepared to give up their romantic aspirations in the name of love.

Again, the movie’s focus is clearly of the heart and not the mind, and in fairness, it never sets itself up as a charter of the great societal upheavals of the era – witness the way in which Mona’s work in the Civil Rights movement is dealt with only in passing, having next to no effect on anyone’s lives – but even so there are many moments when you’re longing for great things to be explored and they simply are not.

There is also a muted quality to some of the interactions between characters.

While a great deal of time and emotional effort is spent on the twists and turns of Sylvie and Robert’s relationship, again quite understandably, precious little real affecting emotion reaches any of the other relationships in the film, save for Sylvie’s close and loving connection with her father (which is also rendered mute some time later in the film when tragedy strikes the family).

Thus, when she and Lacy encounter the almost inevitable rocky patch in their marriage, the conflict between them is almost non-existent, expressing itself less with a melodramatic bang than a meek whimper.

It doesn’t fatally wound this immensely likeable and emotionally resonant piece of cinematic storytelling, which looks as beautiful as you’d expect a lushly-realised film set in the 1950s and ’60s would look, but it also means that while Sylvie and Robert get plenty of understandable screentime, many of the other characters are one-note, two-dimensional efforts, despite the best efforts of the actors playing them, and many of the issues introduced are barely acknowledged before they exit stage left, barely to be seen again.

In many ways that doesn’t matter since the film is all about Sylvie and Robert, and how what their hearts want is almost never in accordance with the way their lives play out, and in the end everything else in the plot is in service to that one overriding objective of which Sylvie’s Love acquits itself beautifully and with great feeling.

This is a film that wears its melodramatic heart very much on its sleeve, but which does so with meaningfully restrained elegance and a real sense of humanity, so much so that where many melodramas end up being all dramatic events and little actual emotional impact of any lasting import, Sylvie’s Love is sweetly, immersively affecting, a tale of love and life in competition which actually leaves a lasting impact, for both the characters and the audience.

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