In one scene of Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love, the woman at the center of it all (Tessa Thompson) is used as a human model for her mother’s very prim and proper lecture on posture. A yardstick serves as her visual guide, gently tapping her daughter on each arch of the body. In the very next scene, those same shoulders and neck are about to be rubbed down with sunscreen as she and her jazz musician boyfriend Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) relax together on a make believe beach rooftop. It’s a subtle edit, but one that exemplifies the chasm that exists between what’s expected of young Sylvie and what she really wants.
Taking place over a handful of years between the late 1950’s and early 60’s, Sylvie’s Love charts the earnestly romantic push-and-pull of Sylvie and Robert’s relationship from infancy to adulthood rigors. Crafted inside a fairly obvious framework that’s been done a hundred times before, what makes the film work in the end is the sensitive performances by Asomugha and especially Thompson. They face all the usual complications, but its handled with grace and lush style.
After a chance meeting outside a New York jazz hall in 1962, the film tracks back to the beginning when Robert falls in love with Sylvie the first time he walks into her father’s record store. Ambling his way into a part-time job there, he grows close to Sylvie even though she’s already engaged to another man (Alano Miller) serving overseas. It’s probably to his credit that Robert is an accomplished saxophonist, playing in a band about to tour Europe and record a record that will be hailed as genius. Sylvie can’t resist him.
Against the solemn upper-lip of her mother, the two begin a relationship that causes far more problems than either anticipated. Jumping back to the chance encounter 5 years later, Sylvie’s Love grows stronger as the two have come adults in life. Sylvie is married now with a child. Robert is struggling to find himself amidst a musical world claiming jazz is “ice cold dead”. It’s here that Sylvie’s Love becomes a much more interesting film as real lives hang in the balance of emotional decisions. It’s not puppy dog love anymore, but morally gray actions that paint everyone as more complex figures.
Also written by Ashe, Sylvie’s Love doesn’t pretend to break any new ground. It’s rooted in the nuanced performances of Thompson and Asomugha, giving a slight variation on the intimate star-crossed lovers drama that’s been a staple of romantic cinema since the early days. Thompson again proves she’s a star, inhabiting an intelligent character whose arch is typically overtly melodramatic, but in Sylvie’s Love, we understand and root for her because she handles the melodramatic with such generosity.
Sylvie’s Love begins streaming on Amazon Prime on December 23.