In Sylvie’s Love, a well-designed period melodrama set mostly in and around Manhattan in the 1950s and ‘60s, romance waxes and wanes in the upwardly mobile African American community of New York and New Jersey. Beautifully shot and staged, the film can sometimes succumb to dramatic inertia, yet ultimately propels itself forward to a moving conclusion. And though, for a story that revolves at least partially around music, Sylvie’s Love occasionally falls almost silent, that hushed reverence is director Eugene Ashe’s gentle ode to the central relationship, which transcends time, place and race to offer universal joy to all.
Tessa Thompson (Little Woods) plays the titular Sylvie, daughter of solidly middle-class Harlem parents who want even more for her than they have. Former NFL pro Nnamdi Asomugha (Crown Heights) plays Robert, an up-and-coming saxophonist whose jazz combo is about to run hot, thanks mostly to his singular talent. When he sees Sylvie through the window of her father’s record store, he knows he has to do whatever it takes to spend time with her, so snags a part-time gig there to fill in the hours between rehearsal and performance. Unfortunately, she is engaged to a well-heeled young man with excellent financial prospects. Still, Robert proves attractive and engaging, and soon they are madly in love.
We don’t start there, however, but in 1962, five years later, before circling back to understand how the opening reunion is set up by a prolonged absence. In that first scene, Sylvie, by now on the verge of success herself, as a television producer, crosses paths (in a major cinematic coincidence) with Robert, just back from a lengthy tour of Europe. We then flash back to 1957, before slowly making our way forwards again, and then beyond, following the ups and downs of the couple’s robust, on-again, off-again relationship. Both leads deliver heartfelt performances, though Thompson is a far more versatile actor than her costar. By the end, we, too, are committed to the outcome, no matter what it may be.
Writer/director Ashe (Homecoming), himself a former musician, does a fine job with the details of both that era and the jazz setting. Even when the plot falters, the spaces feel lived in and the dialogue sounds like something real people would speak. He brings us into the past with unassuming, yet evocative, visuals and sets. And though the cast is not exclusively Black, the white characters are purely there in a supporting capacity, merely to advance the narrative when needed, which is a refreshing change from the usual, even if more common than it once was (such as during the time portrayed). Get your love on this holiday season, then, and do it in style.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)