Desire and dreams meet beautifully in “Sylvie’s Love,” an old-fashioned romance for 21st-century hearts. Modestly scaled yet emotionally expansive, it tracks a pair of young lovers over years of happiness and regret, from the late 1950s to the early ’60s. As the world turns, they meet, fall hard, hesitate and separate. Amid the kisses and sighs, Nancy Wilson sings (“all my bright tomorrows belong to you”), and the screen floods with bold colors and passions. Abandon that fortress you’re hiding in, this movie says. Let the feelings in, let the tears flow — this is what films are made for.
Our heroine, Sylvie — an irresistible Tessa Thompson — lives with her parents in Harlem. She works in her father’s record store (Monk in that bin, Sonny Rollins over there) and dutifully models when her mother teaches etiquette to girls in saddle shoes. Sylvie, with her pixie haircut and perfectly fitted turtleneck, her doe eyes and softly expressive face, looks like she should be waiting for her close-up on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer backlot. But she is a Black woman in 1957 America and that kind of cinematic adoration won’t be afforded characters like hers until movies like this can be made, films that show you what motion pictures could have and should have been.
When an up-and-coming saxophonist, Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, a producer on the movie), walks into the record store, the story quickly settles into its groove. Sparks fly, although it takes Sylvie a little longer than Robert to notice (or admit) what’s happening. She has a fiancé, the son of a wealthy doctor, whom she met at a cotillion. What’s a cotillion, Robert asks, one of the story’s nods at class difference. But Robert is cute and flirty, and soon he and Sylvie are restlessly exchanging meaningful looks. When they finally kiss, the moment is as tremulous and carefully staged as a classic studio romance: It’s night, the lighting is beautiful and so are they.
“Sylvie’s Love” is just the second feature from Eugene Ashe, who knows how to move the camera (and when not to), but also how to stage inside the frame. He’s an obvious cineaste; a scene in a Chinese restaurant flooded with red lighting reads like a fluttering valentine to Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love.” But Ashe isn’t indulging in fanboy allusions to burnish his credentials. Rather, like Todd Haynes in his tragic melodrama “Far From Heaven” (and Douglas Sirk once upon a studio time), Ashe is using a familiar, long-derided film genre both affectionately and critically to explore the gleaming surfaces of life as well as the anguish that lies beneath.