The awkward, morning-after realities of a one-night stand get dragged out into the light of day in writer-director Barry Jenkins’ quiet, festival-circuit tone poem, a shoegazing arthouse romance marked by naturalistic performances and a commitment to the beauty, tenderness and on-tenterhooks hope of everyday reality.
First-time feature director Jenkins’ fresh, breezily compelling reverse-romance — shot in gorgeously muted fashion, with only the faintest, intermittant whiffs of color — follows two San Francisco African-American twentysomethings, Micah (Wyatt Cenac, a fellow correspondent of Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), who slowly become reacquainted the day after they drunkenly meet at a party and have an uncomfortable one-night stand. As they ride bicycles around “the city by the bay,” flirtingly arguing about whether blacks go to museums, or the term “mixed-race” really can adequately describe an indie rock scene that they remain forever on the fringe of, the young couple waver between friendship and romance — the uncomfortable reality of Jo’s out-of-town boyfriend always lurking in the background.
With the movie, Jenkins has been rightly tapped as a talent to watch, named one of Filmmaker Magazine‘s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. It’s easy to see why, since his film has a keen sense of place, a naturalistic blend of character and plot and an unhurried pace. In fact, the first three minutes unfold without any dialogue, and the character to break the reverie is never to be seen again, lending credence to the notion that these characters would perhaps prefer to each slink away, or, even later, shift no higher conversationally than third gear.
Although they’re really otherwise very little alike, Medicine for Melancholy shares the same fetishistic celebration of place that also characterized Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. It’s drained of Lee’s film’s verve and willful eagerness to please, however; like David Gordon Green’s hypnotic and affecting debut film, George Washington, Jenkins’ movie is very much at once about both the inner struggles of its characters and the complicated relationship that they have with the city in which they live.
It’d be a bit glib, though not entirely inaccurate, to label the movie Garden State West, powered as it is by emo-style noodling. It’s not “heavy,” really, though discussions of gentrification and racial identity do make their way into the mix. And the movie isn’t funny, per se, either, but it allows for small, telling flashes of personality, as when Micah boasts of winning a “Cosbetition, part chili cook-off, part Bill Cosby impersonation competition.” In short, Medicine for Melancholy is a low-yield, very humanistic film. All told, there could stand to be a bit more meat on the bone here, either in the form of pressing intellectual, give-and-take engagement, or more immediate outside conflict. But Jenkins proves himself a master of middle-ground uncertainty, bringing to mind a lyric from Dashboard Confessional’s “Vindicated” — “Hope dangles on a string/Like slow-spinning redemption/Winding in and winding out/The shine of it has caught my eye.” For the trailer and more information on the film, click here. (IFC Films, unrated, 88 minutes)