October 29, 2009

Medicine for Melancholy

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***½

[Note: This review originally appeared on GreenCine Daily when film premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The widescreen DVD is out from MPI Home Video.]

I was wary of Barry Jenkins's film even before I even saw it. That's not his fault: I've simply gotten to the point, sadly, where I dread low-budget/indie films shot in my hometown, San Francisco, having sat through too many recently that made me want to claw my eyes out - and then having to nod and smile at the makers afterwards when the lights come on. And in the press notes for this film, "The City of San Francisco" is listed as one of three main characters, which made me worry even further. What's more, the very title is a bit tacked on - Jenkins confessed in an interview that he saw a character in Chloe in the Afternoon reading Ray Bradbury's book and thought it made a fitting title. Nothing inherently wrong with that; I was only disappointed there wasn't more to the reference in the film.

Despite my fears, Medicine for Melancholy, flawed though it may be, is a low-key revelation.

In an interview the director revealed he was influenced by Claire Denis's Friday Night and appropriately also credits Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Before Sunset and, like those films, Medicine is set around a brief encounter, over the course of a day and night and into day again, between two strangers who meet, spend time with each other, slowly realize that this is only a fleeting relationship, and move on. Here it is Micah (the quite likable and funny, if a bit low-energy Wyatt Cenac, who has been involved in TV's King of the Hill), an "urban black male" with hipster-ish tendencies, who worries about the struggles of minorities in a gentrifying San Francisco. His counterpart is the more refined Jo (Tracey Heggins), who doesn't say much at all at first, perhaps realizing this was all a big mistake given that she has a boyfriend, but who warms up to Micah over time. Their connection is real and their disconnect just as real and bittersweet.

Medicine for Melancholy

Micah is soft-spoken and polite - he says "appreciate it" a lot - until his humor and oddnesses surface, a pleasant surprise to Jo and to us. When Jo says she wants to go SFMOMA, he looks at her incredulously and responds with a riddle, "What do two black folks not do on a Sunday afternoon? Go to a museum," and then adds, "It's funny because it's not funny."

The film is nicely shot in a faded tint that seems to exist appropriately somewhere between black and white and color. As promising as the film is as a feature debut for Jenkins, where it goes a bit awry is in the way it tries to force Micah's political viewpoint in ways that feel tacked on rather than coming about naturally. His concerns are presumably the director's (and for the most part mine): renters' rights and gentrification and the decrease in numbers of African Americans in San Francisco - important topics, to be sure, but here it feels like we're taking a break from the flow for a lecture. In fact, the film literally takes a break with a lecture: in one scene, after a lovely moment where Jo and Micah go shopping for dinner fixings (at one of my favorite haunts, Rainbow Grocery), they then stop to eavesdrop on what appears to be a real tenants union meeting. Look, I'm all for renters' rights, but I wasn't prepared for a meeting. (See Boom: The Sound of Eviction for one documentary on the struggle/subject.) Another scene has Micah lecturing Jo about black flight, but at least Jenkins has the good sense to have a counterpoint character in Jo, who begins to tire of Micah's rants at just about the same time that we do.

Fortunately, it's that sense of humor Medicine for Melancholy generally has about itself, helped immeasurably by Cenac's keeping-it-real performance, that won me over. Even if it makes some missteps along the way, this is certainly a debut that makes me look forward to Jenkins's next offering. Appreciate it.

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Posted by cphillips at October 29, 2009 10:46 AM

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