Medicine for Melancholy (2008, Director: Barry Jenkins): When gorgeous Jo (Tracey Heggins) and goofy Micah (Wyatt Cenac) wake up in the same bed after a party, she’s annoyed and embarrassed. He’s curious, maybe a little infatuated. After a very awkward breakfast and a shared cab, they go their separate ways. But Micah finds Jo’s purse in the cab and sets out to return it. Gradually, Jo thaws out and they decide to spend the day together. I haven’t yet mentioned that both Jo and Micah are black, and maybe the only black people in their circle of indie hipster friends. Though it’s not explained, it might be the reason they ended up in bed after the drunken night before.
To Micah, being black in San Francisco matters. A lot. He takes Jo to the Museum of the African Diaspora for a bit of black history. Unfortunately, this is where Medicine for Melancholy begins to taste a little bit too much like medicine. Micah’s concerns revolve around the scarcity of black people in San Francisco, as well as the rapid gentrification of neighbourhoods, forcing the poor and middle class out of the city to the East Bay. Not only does he talk about this a lot, we even get to eavesdrop on a meeting of a housing rights group, which made me feel like the director had slipped a documentary short into the middle of the film.
As we follow the young couple around on the “day after” their one-night stand, we see that Micah is definitely looking for more, while Jo seems content to stay with her rich white boyfriend. The issues involved in their reasons were the most interesting part of the film. As Micah explains, black people make up only 7% of the population of San Francisco, and being into indie rock puts both of them into an even tinier group. For Micah, this means they should be together, while Jo reacts angrily to that assumption. By the end of the film, their relationship is left unresolved, but both of them are still thinking.
Medicine for Melancholy is beautifully shot in a desaturated colour palette, making it unique and even painterly to look at. Director Barry Jenkins also wrote the script, and worked with a tiny crew, but the results on the screen are polished in a way that few indie films I’ve seen can achieve. Bonus points for a great soundtrack that includes a couple of songs from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.
The few false notes in Jo and Micah’s relationship are probably unavoidable when working with such a tight time constraint (the film covers just 24 hours). That being said, I wish the script had followed the “show, don’t tell” advice that my creative writing teacher used to hammer into my head.