Medicine for Melancholy stands as the latest proof for the axiom that films need very little action or plot to grab and hold the viewer’s attention, as long as crisp writing and excellent acting provide a locus for one’s attention. Anyone who has worked in a bar, a food court, or any other place where people loiter knows that strong drama can arise from the bare interactions of two intriguing individuals. Writer and director Barry Jenkins, whose mastery of character and location belies his short filmography, uses that foundation to generate a tight, well-crafted film solely from the uneasy duet of two strangers who spend a day together following a one-night stand. With no exposition to introduce his characters, Jenkins allows them to introduce each other as they introduce themselves. Jenkins also has a ringer in reserve, tapping the city of San Francisco as a third lead to keep the story from becoming static. The result is a quiet, thoughtful character study that I already want to see again.
In leading role debuts for both of Jenkins’ protagonists, Wyatt Cenac (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) and Tracey Heggins (“Swingtown”) show admirable restraint and grace in delivering naturalistic, understated performances that still rivet one’s attention to their every move, gesture, and expression. Persisting against his overnight lover’s attempts to ditch him, Micah (Cenac) wangles his way into spending the day with Jo (Heggins), bicycling around San Francisco and hanging out at Micah’s apartment. Beyond their muted conversations, not much goes on; yet a great deal happens in the halting way they come to at least scratch the surface of each other’s façades. Micah begins to learn a little about Jo’s reluctance to continue their liaison, while Jo teases out the details of Micah’s complex emotional relationship with his home city.
Those threads turn out to relate to each other, as aspects of Jo’s domestic situation are implicated by Micah’s complicated feelings over the way San Francisco has turned away from the ethnic groups that originally built the city, abandoning the economic underclass to feed the stratospheric property values and yuppie lifestyles that dominate the city’s economy today. Micah, an African-American, resents black flight from the city and the assimilation of the remaining black residents into largely white social groups, seeing this shrinking cultural profile as a challenge to his racial and geographical identity. Jo, also African-American, discloses some personal choices from her own life that bring her into conflict with Micah’s philosophy.
This theme is an important dramatic pivot for Medicine for Melancholy, though Micah and Jo’s wide-ranging conversational minuet provides others as well. This scripting decision on Jenkins’ part gave me mixed feelings as it played out, because it’s the one part of the film that feels a bit cliché. On one hand, this trait makes Micah more authentic because of San Francisco’s unusual mix of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic residents, a burbling cauldron of social and political dynamics in an über-liberal city still largely segregated by race. On the other hand, I was more delighted with Medicine for Melancholy when the race of the protagonists was entirely irrelevant to the story — I was greatly looking forward to reviewing a film primarily featuring black people where their race would have nothing to do with the narrative treatment of them as human beings. To paraphrase Micah, however, many people feel that such identifications are inevitable, and perhaps Medicine for Melancholy is a more honest film because of it.
Medicine for Melancholy also functions unobtrusively as a clinic on the relationship between cinematography and narrative. Jenkins, along with cinematographer James Laxton and film editor Nat Sanders, shows a deft touch in managing images to tell a story that relies very little on active visuals. While both Cenac and Heggins are easy on the eyes, each also has a distinctive physical presence, and Jenkins carefully places them in proximity to each other, framing them together in many shots, then separating them periodically to feed the mood of light tension and, at times, awkwardness. Lingering shots match up with lulls in dialogue, and rapid jump cuts support the blaring rhythm of scenes in a night club. Jenkins is amazingly assured for a relatively inexperienced director, using visual techniques to buttress narrative events in ways foreign to most Hollywood directors.
Jenkins’ intriguing and accomplished work has a great deal to offer those interested in introspective studies of how people reveal themselves to intimate strangers. If forced to make a comparison, one might consider the film a kissing cousin of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, another film about the interactions of two relative strangers over the course of one day. Such a comparison is a bit reductive, however; Medicine for Melancholy is its own special creature, less twee, more real, and more, um, melancholy than Before Sunrise. At a lean, bordering-on-anorexic 85 minutes, you might decide to watch it twice.
Medicine for Melancholy is currently playing in San Francisco and on Video on Demand.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]