By Andrea Thompson
They say the course of true love never did run smooth, but there seem to be a whole lot of unnecessary obstacles in “Sylvie’s Love,” which feels less like a modern film with all the trappings of prestige than a throwback which is far too timid to be the regressive fantasy it clearly wants to be.
“Sylvie’s Love” is mostly set in the 50s and 60s, and pretty much everything you’d expect is present. Or rather, retro. The clothes, the shows, and my goodness, the music…writer-director Eugene Ashe clearly adores this period, and he brings in all its pop culture he can squeeze in for this soulful tribute.
The title likewise promises that love is in the air along with nostalgia, but the latter is what really shines through, and it’s the lovers who suffer most. Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) meet during what becomes their own Summer of Love in 1957. He is a saxophone player already marked for greatness, and Sylvie has ambitions of working in television, with Thompson and Asomugha’s soulful performances and sizzling chemistry making their passion worth following not just through the summer, but subsequent years.
Their relationship is made somewhat juicier by the fact that it has to be a secret during that first hot season, although it becomes more of an open one as it slowly but surely progresses. Sylvie is engaged, and her overbearing mother, who teaches young girls to comport themselves to the feminine standards of the time, is very invested in Sylvie following through with her wedding plans, given that her fiance has the kind of prospects that come from wealth and connections.
This isn’t the reason behind Sylvie and Robert’s love winding down as summer does. The reasoning behind it is actually somewhat baffling, and only gets more so as they continue to meet up at subsequent points in their lives, during which Sylvie becomes a successful TV producer (a little too easily) and Robert’s star rises, then falls as the popularity of jazz gives way to Motown. Their mutual, passionate attraction means that even after years of separation, one meeting is enough to pull them back into each other’s orbit, and why they insist on interrupting it is never fully fleshed out.
It partially explains why the side characters are done such a disservice. If the leads aren’t fully defined, then everyone around them can only function as necessary plot functions, or sometimes barely seem to exist at all. Sylvie and her mother never come to any kind of understanding, and her undoubtedly cool dad, who owns the record store where Sylvie works and first meets Robert, barely gets anything resembling exploration.
There’s also the far too common gender traps male filmmakers can fall into when they make movies about women. Sylvie is apparently only allowed to have one close female friend at a time, given her fraught relationship with not only her mother, but the other, far more sexualized women who make Sylvie just insecure enough for them to believably function as catty competition for Robert’s time and affections. Her only close female friend Mona (Aja Naomi King), who is non judgemental and supportive, is mostly off working on various Civil Rights campaigns.
It tends to get cringey when such ill-defined characters try and make a go of it together, and it doesn’t take long for “Sylvie’s Love” to comply. The movie quickly puts Sylvie’s career on the back burner, assumes Robert must be the one to take the lead in their life together, then throws in yet another unnecessary parting that’s more in the vein of “Twilight” than a love story about and for fully grown adults that’s clearly meant to be a throwback to the melodramas of old with a mostly Black and Latinx cast.
In a way, the movie is merely fulfilling its title, which champions love as Sylvie’s (and only Sylvie’s) true purpose. She’s only able to fully advocate for herself when she’s paired up with a partner who’s clearly wrong for her, and once the right one shows up, he is the star she must orbit around. Such mismatched expectations belong more to the time Eugene Ashe clearly thinks we’ve moved beyond, but old, sexist habits die hard.