Young, black, sexy and sad in San Francisco

A tender African-American love story set in the capital of white hipsterdom, "Medicine for Melancholy" is the perfect indie debut for the early Obama era.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 29, 2009 11:42AM (EST)

Tracey Heggins (left) and Wyatt Cenac in Barry Jenkins' film "Medicine for Melancholy."

Part near-miss love story, part social commentary and part contemplative road trip through the streets of San Francisco, Barry Jenkins' debut feature, "Medicine for Melancholy," is so subtle and subdued that it nearly undercuts itself. I'd describe it, in fact, as a film that doesn't quite work -- but the way it doesn't work is so distinctive and so interesting that it marks Jenkins as an exciting new face on the American indie scene.

"Medicine for Melancholy" has caused a mini-sensation on the festival scene since premiering last March at South by Southwest (and was nominated for multiple Spirit and Gotham awards), and that partly has to do with the film's hushed tone and patient, intimate technique. In the mysterious opening scene, a man and woman wake up together without saying a word. They're evidently awkward in each other's company, but we have no idea what their relationship is or what has happened between them. For the first minute or so, you think Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton shot the film in black-and-white, until you notice the faintest washes of rusty red, dusty blue and pale pink -- more like the memory of colors than colors themselves. The film's reception also reflects the remarkable performances of Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins as Micah and Jo, two strangers who begin to reveal themselves to each other, uncertainly and guardedly, on the day after their drunken one-night stand at somebody's party. (If you watch the trailer, you may notice that Jo first introduces herself as "Rachel." It's that kind of hookup, at least at first.)

But "Medicine for Melancholy" is also newsworthy because of its faces, quite literally. Cenac and Heggins are African-American, as is Jenkins. This is firstly a personal and secondarily a political film; it isn't trying to be anthropology. But it does focus on two black characters in America's least black major city, characters who hunger for some kind of racial or cultural connection at the same time as they have embraced a largely white social milieu. For want of a better word, Jo and Micah are hipsters. (To use the marketing argot of the moment, I guess they're "blipsters.") They know about foreign films, marginal rock music and local art installations. Their friends and their lovers, at least in this phase of their lives, have mostly been white.

Jenkins' treatment of this material is both specific and sophisticated; he's observing the fraught and lonely condition of these people, not issuing a manifesto about it. For a while in the middle of the film Micah tries out a pseudo-nationalist, blacks-should-be-with-blacks position, but of course his primary purpose is getting into this particular black woman's pants (that is, getting back into them now that she's halfway sober). It's not at all clear how seriously he takes this ideology, which may have a lot to do with learning that Jo is being supported by her rich, white boyfriend. And if you're paying attention, there are clues that suggest that Micah's heart was recently broken by a woman of the Caucasian persuasion.

Yet however inelegantly Micah expresses himself, he's talking about something real. As any black person who's ever dated a white person (or vice versa) is aware, it can get tiresome being the couple that everybody in the restaurant unconsciously swivels to stare at. Micah and Jo are the kind of people who believe that race is a social construction -- but social realities feel no less powerful than biological ones. During the long, tender, uncomfortable day they spend together in San Francisco, the forces pushing Micah and Jo together seem roughly equal to the ones pulling them apart.

The couple have breakfast, split up, find each other again, argue, go to galleries and museums, ride on a carousel, have sex, eat more food and go to a nightclub ("White-people music or black-people music?" they ask each other), all while taking a nearly comprehensive tour of San Francisco, from Noe Valley to the Marina District to downtown to Yerba Buena Gardens to the Tenderloin. I have mixed feelings about the city Jenkins depicts; it doesn't strongly resemble the one where I lived for many years, but I don't think it's supposed to. This is difficult to convey in a review, but "Medicine for Melancholy" is in some respects closer to a fairy tale than to realism. The city Micah and Joanne move through has buildings and taxicabs and baristas, but it's also an imaginary and ephemeral landscape created by their one-day romance.

Jenkins' efforts to introduce political issues into the story are jarring and clunky, perhaps intentionally so -- the film is interrupted, literally, by a meeting of left-wing activists organizing against gentrification -- but the movie is gorgeous to look at throughout and the scale of his ambition is impressive. In interviews, he has cited Godard, Claire Denis and Jim Jarmusch as inspirations, and the blend of aesthetics and confrontation in "Medicine for Melancholy" reflect those influences. (This definitely isn't a movie about black hipsters made by an outsider, let's put it that way.)

I love both the actors in this film, especially Cenac, who plays Micah as a wry mixture of poetic insight, racially tinged anger and mumbled politeness. (His all-purpose, passive-aggressive phrase for any situation: "Appreciate that.") Heggins gives a sexy, graceful performance, but Joanne is very much the Girl, the Target, the Object of Desire. As such, she's even more a shielded, self-protective character than Micah is; to a significant degree, this is a story about two people who can't or won't allow themselves to be vulnerable, and how much that has to do with race or gender or class or geography is left ambiguous.

Like almost every other film in the "Before Sunrise"/"Roman Holiday" almost-romance genre, "Medicine for Melancholy" stumbles a little over the will-they-or-won't-they question that hovers over the story throughout. Jenkins tries to invent an answer that isn't A or B, and winds up endangering his entire enterprise with pseudo-profundity. Fortunately, that doesn't much diminish the impact of this sad, memorable and highly original American film, or the strange, isolated universe its lovelorn couple inhabits.

"Medicine for Melancholy" opens Jan. 30 at the IFC Center in New York, Feb. 13 in Detroit, Feb. 20 in Seattle and Feb. 27 in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Movies