It’s almost as if someone gently whispered “Old Hollywood” into your ear then, sweeping you off your feet, stole you away to the land of Douglas Sirk—or its 21st Century-made counterparts, “Far from Heaven” and “Carol” by Todd Haynes—where the atmosphere is lush, the colors and emotions are heightened, and costumes are dreamy. We realize in that heart-stopping moment that writer/director Ashe is about to give us something comfortingly tender with his sophomore narrative feature, attempting to revitalize a kind of romantic movie they don’t seem to be making all that much anymore. On those grounds alone where John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” recently stood, “Sylvie’s Love” feels downright rebellious, daring to exist with its unapologetic old-fashioned quality at a time when many maddeningly seem to dismiss honest-to-god romances and proud women’s pictures as slight and outdated.
But there is something more that makes Ashe’s amour fou defiant and groundbreaking in its own way. And look no further than the film’s terrific ensemble cast of almost entirely Black and PoC actors to spot it. A movie lacquered in some of the attributes of the Golden Age it might be, but “Sylvie’s Love” is about the very characters the era often disregarded in their output, failing to recognize them as the protagonists of their own stories. Ashe said it best after the Sundance premiere of “Sylvie’s Love” back in January, noting that he was inspired to write his script after looking through old happy photographs of his own family from the 1950s. Seeing how his ancestors carried themselves with love and dignity, he decided to reflect the truth he found in those pictures; an alternate reality not frequently mirrored in cinema about the Black experience, even today. “I wanted to make a film where Black people of the era don’t exist through adversity, but through love,” he said.
With the on-again, off-again relationship of the willowy and resourceful Sylvie and the ever-charismatic Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha)—her aforementioned long-lost love—Ashe does exactly that. He creates a slice of late-‘50s and early-‘60s where the era’s racism, stirring Civil Rights beats and empowering Women’s Liberation Movement obviously and visibly exist—our ahead-of-her-time Sylvie does read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in one scene after all—but the struggles they bring along are decidedly not the story’s main focus. Instead, Ashe keeps his lens tight on the normalcy of the epoch’s everyday life, a luxury that’s formerly been almost exclusively afforded to white-centric stories of the period.