The details of Barry Jenkins’ righteous “Medicine for Melancholy” fixed-gear bikes and messenger bags, bottled iced tea and late night tacos, Rainbow Grocery and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, old Victorians and housing rights discussions evoke a life I once lead so strongly that watching the film sent me into sense memory flashbacks. A bittersweet paean to San Francisco and its indie scene, “Medicine for Melancholy” is also a vivid semi-love story and a contemplation of race and gentrification in the city and to answer the question that was posed to producer Justin Barber at the Q&A after a screening and turned by him to the crowd, no, it’s not a mumblecore movie, for all that it’s about a pair of twentysomethings spending the day talking. It doesn’t look like one, and it has too much solidity and forthrightness; the characters actually confront their own emotions and each other, they have social and political concerns, they fight.
(When this subject was raised, the audience was vehement about not applying that label to this film at 2008 SXSW, the bloom is off the mumblecore rose.)
They ‘Jo (Tracey Heggins) and Micah (Wyatt Cenac), along with director/writer Jenkins are also black, something unseen in the kingdom of mumblecore and not exactly common in the larger world of indie culture of which it’s a part. As Micah puts it, of the seven percent of San Francisco that’s black, maybe one or two percent are part of their scene: “You ever realize just how few of us there really are?” It’s that awareness that drives him to track her down after a one-night stand and to win her over into spending a meandering Sunday riding to the Museum of the African Diaspora (the one part of the film that leans a little heavily on its themes), cooking dinner, giggling about Rick James over a joint and going out dancing. He’s charming, but has a chip on his shoulder, and she’s not really sure what she’s doing her boyfriend, white, is away in London. The film is desaturated to the point that the only colors that come through, mostly reds, are muted, giving it a pensive feel, but also standing as a visual reminder of Micah’s sense of isolation. “Medicine for Melancholy” is something like a movie mixtape, with a soundtrack from smallish bands rising up to carry us from scene to often ecstatic scene it was shot in HD, but doesn’t look it to an end that’s, fittingly, melancholy. It’s an assured and impressive debut from Barry Jenkins, and one of the great finds of the festival.
[Photo: “Medicine for Melancholy,” Strike Anywhere, 2008]