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REVIEW – “Sylvie’s Love”: La La Land Meets the Harlem Shuffle

Disjointed as 2020’s year-end awards rush has been, with dates being drawn out through the spring, there’s little reason why we wouldn’t be invited into some mild form of romantic fantasy, not unlike Damien Chazelle or Jacques Demy on their best days. That’s the familiar template musician turned sophomore writer/director Eugene Ashe (Homecoming) utilizes in sharing a fond love letter to his old stomping grounds. New York’s Harlem neighborhood never really looked as alive as it does in Sylvie’s Love, a rather sparkling yarn capturing the realities of an uncertain relationship. And how not every single one can flow to perfection, reputably handled with a primarily POC cast.

Tessa Thompson further diversifies her powerful range playing the title character, a kind soul gussied up for a Nancy Wilson concert, when she runs into Robert (Nmandi Asomugha), a familiar face from long ago. The fate befalling their career trajectories had pulled them apart, but the chance encounter brings them back down to earth, reawakening the bonds they forged five years in the past, which is how far we flash back, to where Sylvie’s working in the record store owned by her serious dad (a very charming Lance Reddick).

She’s a little unclear of her future, making clear her only passions are with music and TV. Having been exposed to jazz and standards much of her life, the former’s instilled in her brain. The latter comes from years of obsessive watching. Robert’s just starting out on his own journey, making chump change in small combos with his alto sax. A few smooth exchanges of words provokes Robert in such a way, that he eventually gets himself hired. They work together, and they fall in love.

Of course, that can only be one part of the story. Just as Ashe gets cozy enough in believing the audience they could be meant to be, it’s not so easy. Robert feels the lure of a lucrative job in Paris, championed by a newfound manager known as The Countess (Jemima Kurke). Moreover, Sylvie is already engaged to business-savvy Lacy (Alano Miller), and her amateur-ish enthusiasm eventually lands her that wild dream job in the TV industry. Granted, it’s a producer’s assistant gig on a local cooking show with a charismatic host (Wendi McClendon-Covey), but it’s an admirable start for anyone who’d watch Lucy religiously and learn the business that way.

It really is true love placed on a test of durability, the whole “will they or won’t they” concept playing the bass for Ashe’s script, while the whimsical flourishes, accompanied by a period-appropriate soundtrack reinforced with Fabrice Lecomte’s string-heavy underscore, fill out this fulfilling, symphonic atmosphere. For all its familiarity being a product of a past decade, Ashe unashamedly gives it a modern spin without it having to be its most important element.

The chemistry feels current, so do the career goals, and the inherent sacrifices which follow. The family ties, reminiscent of old lineage in Ashe’s clan going back to the 50’s, seek to balance the new-school attitude, coupled with a smidgeon of compassion usually not seen in cinematic stories with Black protagonists. Yes, we see certain adversity in Sylvie’s work, McClendon-Covey’s character an interesting sort who’s tough to impress, but eventually warms up to the new PA. But it’s a small aspect compared to how love can overcome a dire situation with an honest face to represent the uncertainty of whether that love exists. We never fall into that particular trap most romantic stories land in, particularly those with white leads, the kind we’re too used to that don’t always aim for realism. Here, normal domesticity is the aim, the tension and desperation to hold onto what has developed. Supportive friends help as well, with Tone Bell, Ron Funches, and Aja Naomi King lending their talents.

It is all so refreshing, poetic, and occasionally quirky, poking a little fun before getting back on track. Ashe has a good eye for all those marks, grabbing onto that 60s time period with both hands, and not letting go until the very last frame. Assisted by Declan Quinn’s (Rickie and the Flash) use of 16mm camera work, Dana Cogden’s (Dom Hemingway) seam-free editing, and costume designer Phoenix Mellow’s delightfully period-appropriate attire, the aesthetic Ashe is pushing for never ceases to grow.

One can only hope Sylvie’s Love sticks as well in the memory as its director would hope. It is a worthwhile watch speaking on the rigors of relationships in just about any era. There may be a small generational gap in play, but that will be tough to avoid with any director. The fact it appreciates the past so enthusiastically is what should make the work timeless over enough months and years. Thompson sticks the landing and her on-screen bond with Asomugha is a delight in itself. All that should be enough to make this a winner, we don’t exactly need a high-tension scenario for every film about the Black experience. This under-the-radar adventure of common human triads bucks the trend, and perhaps, luckily, sets a new one in its wake. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Sylvie’s Love is currently streaming on Prime Video; rated PG-13 for smoking and some sexual content; 114 minutes.