REVIEW: ‘Passing’ swings for the fences, but it’s a miss for Netflix

The 1920s are brought to life in this new Netflix feature, with a black and white look reminiscent of movies from the era.

“Passing” stars Tessa Thompson as Irene, a light-skinned black woman who lives in Harlem with with her husband, an African American doctor (Andre Holland), and two sons. The movie picks up with Irene out and about one day where she runs into a friend from high school.

That friend is Clare (Ruth Negga), who is African American, but because of her light skin and blonde hair, “passes” as white. The film explores the friendship between Clare and Irene, and how it relates to race and class.

Despite having quality in a few areas, such as the cinematography, “Passing” as a whole is a disappointment. From start to finish, the movie’s story meanders around from scene to scene with little cohesion.

As the film goes on, there’s a sense that nothing is really being built to. The drama doesn’t become more intense or compelling, and the relationships often seem stuck in neutral. As a result, “Passing” becomes a chore to sit through, all the way to its clumsy ending.

The film moves from scene-to-scene, showing interaction after interaction between Irene and Clare, and each one seems to go nowhere. Watching their interactions is fairly interesting because of the circumstances surrounding Clare’s “passing,” but it never rises to be engaging.

Courtesy Netflix.

These disjointed, forgettable scenes continually fail to hook a viewer in. It’s a shame, too, because there’s certainly intriguing elements at play. Themes of race, acceptance, and class come up frequently, yet it just scratches at the surface.

The script, adapted from the novel of the same name by Rebecca Hall, who also directed, seems underwritten. Many moments of dialogue, sadly, lack emotional punches and social commentary that resonates. It pales in comparison to, say, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” for example.

What’s unfortunate is the whole cast gives really dedicated performances in “Passing.” Both Negga and Thompson are superb in the film. Both actresses, and the supporting cast, are able to recreate the manner of speaking and behavior from that decade, making for an effective period piece.

One wishes the film had given more insight into what the two were thinking when they were interacting, though. There seems to be moments of slight tension, jealousy, confliction and attraction between the two, yet it isn’t always decipherable what exactly they’re focused on.

Despite some good acting, an interesting concept and a crisp black and white look that works for the story being told, “Passing” is sadly a boring experience. 2.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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