Written and directed by Eugene Ashe (Homecoming), Sylvie’s Love is beautifully realized mid-century drama about star-crossed lovers in New York City whose destinies are as intertwined as they are seemingly divergent. The ever-charming Tessa Thompson stars as Sylvie, daughter of upper-middle-class professionals (her mother runs an etiquette school for girls; her father owns a record store) who, despite her dream of working in television production, is expected to lead a respectable, predictable life of marriage, family and community engagement. Nnamdi Asomugha is the dashing Robert Holloway, an up-and-coming musician who stops into the record store one afternoon and promptly falls in love with Sylvie despite hearing of her engagement to a young man off serving in the Korean war.
The chemistry between these two beautiful people is undeniable, and as they get to know each other during their shared shifts at the record store, their early courtship is as sweet as it is sharp. It’s quickly evident they’ve each met their match in the other, and despite her long-distance engagement and his unpredictable career pursuits, the two begin seeing each other and grow close over deep conversations and long hours spent together. On a night that Sylvie and her cousin Mona (Aja Naomi King) get dolled up to see Robert and his quartet play at a local cabaret, the band’s new manager (Jemima Kirke) surprises them with an offer to go on tour in Paris that very summer—if they can get out of the existing gig at the club. When they do, Robert invites Sylvie to join him, but she has her own obligations at home (and her own dreams to pursue), so she sends him off to France alone. And just like that, before any potential future can begin, the two are suddenly an ocean apart.
As it has a way of doing, life goes on for the pair; Sylvie’s fiancé returns to the States and, without Robert there as a reason to resist the inevitable, she marries Lacy (Alano Miller) as planned. Like the recent “grand conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, these two beings are meant to cross paths across the years, and they do just that again after Sylvie’s landed a job on a local television show and Robert’s found success as a musician, now back in New York to record an album. As their lives take their twists and turns, they are never far from each other; if separated by distance, one is always on the other’s mind (and heart), their connection persistent through personal traumas, life changes and the passing of time. With a vibrant shared charisma, this central couple is essential to the deep appeal of a film with so much to offer.
With all that going for it, however, Sylvie’s Love never quite achieves the magic to which it aspires; like romance itself, a film of this caliber requires something extra, some inexplicable, intangible spark in order to really ignite. Try as it might, with compelling central performances and lush period costumes and set pieces (the New York City streets, glistening in the streetlight after the rain, are enough to break your heart), Ashe’s final product ultimately lands just this side of perfection. Perhaps it’s the one too many hiccups Robert and Sylvie face on their journey to true love, or the over-simplified plot points that fill the film nearly to bursting. Whatever it is, the sheen on this could-be-great epic love story starts to fade by the time our lovers are wise enough to understand what’s at stake the longer they dance around embracing their shared destinies. And it’s a shame, truly. For a film to come so close to greatness and ultimately come up short is perhaps more disappointing than a film that was never great to begin with.
As the year comes to a close, many exceptional films are making their way into the world, and we’ll see many of them earning accolades and awards for months to come. Though Sylvie’s Love will probably not make the grade in the cut-throat world of film awards, there is much to recommend it, its sweeping love story and those embroiled in it at the top of that list. It’s the story of a love that lasts a lifetime, the kind of love that surprises us and sustains us even as it derails us and hurts us and costs us more than we think we have to give. And as Robert and Sylvie learn all too well, it’s that love that makes everything—the good, the bad and the ugly—worthwhile.
Sylvie’s Love is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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