Eugene Ashe's sweet and earnest melodrama about Black love in '50s New York is at once fresh and comfortingly familiar
As 2020 draws to a close, comfort viewing will be the order of the day for many. After a frankly horrendous year, familiar old cinematic staples will surely be trotted out for festive viewing. Perhaps the greatest strength of Sylvie’s Love, then, is in its familiarity. This is a wildly charming, old-school film romance that feels like it could have been lifted straight from the late ‘50s, an entirely straight-faced and sincere homage with firecracker dialogue and a swoon-worthy central couple.
Eugene Ashe’s film does make an important departure from its Silver Age inspirations though, centring the romance on a young black couple in New York and surrounding them with a majority black supporting cast, an opportunity never afforded in the Hollywood of 60-odd years ago. Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) works at the record store owned by her father Herbert (Lance Reddick, on very fine form), but her plans for a lazy summer are upended when Herbert hires Robert Holloway (former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha, who also produces here) to help her out.
Robert is handsome, witty, and a prodigiously talented saxophonist, and Sylvie falls for him almost as quickly as he falls for her, even with the shadow cast by Sylvie’s fiancé Lacy (Alano Miller), who is stationed with the army in Korea. The initial courtship is a delight, dancing to records at the store, spending long evenings on Sylvie’s rooftop, and whiling away the small hours at the jazz club where Robert’s band plays. Their excitement when they see each other flows in dizzying waves from the screen and Thompson and Asomugha both put in luminous performances.
Ashe draws Sylvie and Robert’s lives with fine-tuned detail, everything from Sylvie’s strained relationship with her snobbish mother to Robert’s gradual ascent to musical stardom granting a richness and vitality to the world. It’s a lovely world to inhabit, full of warm Sirkian melodrama, though the pace does dip considerably in the second half.
A five-year time skip reintroduces us to the couple under a slightly harsher, colder light and, despite their being a lot more actual conflict in the latter sections of the film, they aren’t as compelling as the graceful, easy-going dance that makes up the first hour. There’s still some good stuff to be found – Sylvie’s newfound career success as a daytime TV producer is fresh and funny and grants her an additional focus and agency in all her exchanges with Robert – but you may find yourself longing for the simpler pleasures of the past.
That, of course, may well be the point, and the opening hour does have the feel of a treasured memory or even a dream, the sumptuous costumes and 16mm photography providing a sort of comforting haze over everything. Though the Civil Rights Movement does feature in a handful of scenes, it’s mainly just as a backdrop to give depth to a few supporting characters. Sylvie’s Love is less concerned with exploring history than it is with creating a little bit of its own, black love and wish-fulfilment filtered through a traditional yet timeless lens.
Sylvie's Love is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.Where to watch