The story they inhabit isn’t particularly original, but the protagonists generate more than enough electricity to make up for that lack, along with other shortcomings, in “Sylvie’s Love,” streaming on Amazon Prime. Filmmaker Eugene Ashe has delivered a jazzy, swooning re-creation of the big-screen melodramas of the 1950s and 1960s, with a necessary revision.
Bringing to mind the mid-20th-century films of Douglas Sirk and the “women’s pictures” of decades prior, Ashe’s movie contains a lush Technicolor look, a heated melodramatic plot and a strong heroine. What’s different is that Ashe (“Homecoming”) has addressed the exclusions of the past by giving the movie Black primary characters.
Set mostly in New York City, from 1957 into the 1960s, the film features Tessa Thompson as Sylvie, a young woman who works at a Harlem record store owed by her father (Lance Reddick) and dreams of a career as a producer in the world of television.
Sylvie and talented jazz saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) share a meet-cute moment, and, with Sylvie’s fiance, Lacy (Alano Miller), conveniently out of the picture for a spell, Sylvie and Robert flirt and bond over music. Also convenient is the “help wanted” sign in the store window. Robert gets himself hired, so that he can be near Sylvie.
Love blossoms between the pair, of course. It’s a situation that Sylvie’s class-conscious etiquette-instructor mother (Erica Gimpel), who wants Sophie to marry the wealthier Lacy, opposes.
When Sylvie learns she is pregnant with Robert’s child, she doesn’t tell Robert, because she knows that such information would prompt him to abandon the plum career opportunity on which he’s embarking.
Five years later, Sylvie is married to Lacy, has a young daughter, and works as a producer’s assistant on a cooking show. In one of Ashe’s several rare or idealized scenarios, Sylvie’s boss, a Black woman, has triumphed as a network television producer in the unenlightened early 1960s. Her experience inspires Sylvie.
The melodrama intensifies when Sylvia and the now successful Robert meet by chance and act on their still-passionate feelings for each other, triggering developments that shake up their lives, after which Ashe ties up their story rather neatly, and “The End” appears, in cursive writing, on the screen.
Novel and penetrating “Sylvie’s Love” isn’t. Nothing extraordinary exists in the unexpected love, unplanned pregnancy, separations and reunions, career highs and lows, self-sacrifice, and surfacing secrets.
Supporting characters, who, along with Sylvie’s above-mentioned parents, include Sylvie’s wilder cousin (Aja Naomi), Robert’s fellow musicians, and a flirty woman ridiculously presented as Sylvie’s rival for Robert’s affections, are underused or shallowly drawn.
A dearth of social content also stands out. Ashe has intentionally made a picture in which Black characters experience the same joys and challenges as their white counterparts in 20th-century melodramas instead of being saddled with a familiar race-related storyline. Yet the lack of reference to racism of the times, or to the current of change in the air as the civil-rights movement heats up, will tax some viewers’ suspension of disbelief.
Additionally, a flood of life-changing events on New Year’s Eve amounts to excess, and two unspectacular romantic montages are too many.
Yet despite these weaknesses, the movie dispels notions that old-fashioned, sultry romantic dramas can’t be sexy and engrossing.
Ashe sets a perfect tone, and Thompson and Asomugha give magnetic performances.
The always impressive Thompson and athlete-turned-actor Asomugha share chemistry essential to the resonance of the love story. Thompson supplies the movie with a relatable, immensely deserving heroine.
There’s also atmospheric cinematography, period-specific production design and music, and Sylvie’s killer wardrobe and hairstyles.
Not much may exist beneath the film’s appealing surfaces, but for satisfying escapism, “Sylvie’s Love” delivers.
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Alano Miller
Written and directed by: Eugene Ashe
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes