Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

Directed by Barry Jenkins

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Medicine for Melancholy feels like a film from the French New Wave.  It’s a character study with no real plot.  The shots are handheld, and the image is bleached and desaturated so much so that the movie calls attention to the ways in which it is just that, a movie.

This is a story grounded in realism, a single day spent between two people following a one night stand, but there is an experimental quality to it.  The film follows something of a romance between Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), but the more interesting aspect of the film is the exploration of race and gentrification within America as seen in San Francisco.

Micah points out that only 7% of the city is black (at the time of filming).  It’s a problem because as the city raises rent and wipes away poorer neighborhoods, it inevitably becomes more whitewashed.  It’s a problem that has only increased in the last ten years.

Jo acknowledges his concern but doesn’t share it to the degree he does.  All she sees is a man complaining about a city he claims to love.  To her race doesn’t matter because it can only be used as a way to build barriers.  To Micah it very much does matter, and he willfully builds those barriers up, at least between him and Jo as the story chugs along.

They have different perspectives, in other words, and the film allows them to explore these differences.  In one moment Micah explains why he loves the city in what amounts to a short spoken word poem.  His narration is accompanied by colorful shots of the city, much more inviting than the desaturated images we’ve been staring at for so long.

In another scene the two of them go to a meeting in the Mission, one of those hip neighborhoods increasingly displacing residents who have lived there for years.  Micah and Jo are present, but they do not speak nor do they really even appear onscreen.  We just watch as a handful of people discuss the problems of poor rent control (if any) and gentrification.  People who contribute to the vibrancy of San Francisco culture are being forced to move out of the city.

These two moments break from the film’s own narrative, and they feel experimental and alive because they show what director Barry Jenkins is interested in exploring.  There is a lot to like between Micah and Jo, but the performances are occasionally uneven, and their characters are equally subdued for much of the film, making them not the most exciting screen presences.

The story does work a little better when the characters begin to have some fun, whether in their shared flirtation or moments in which characters express a strong point of view. As the title suggests, however, they are working through some stuff.  While Micah’s opinions and frustrations are much more clearly stated, Jo’s melancholy is left to the imagination.

We have an idea for why she feels the way she does.  She’s in a relationship with an art curator who’s off on a trip somewhere in Europe.  Maybe she feels shame for the brief affair, maybe she’s unhappy in the relationship, maybe she feels disconnected from the world around her (as Micah seems to believe) or maybe it’s all of the above.

So it’s a portrait of people who stand in for broader issues.  It’s a good film is what it is, a little rough around the edges, but it’s that roughness which helps define the film.  This is a movie made with passion, down on the streets all over San Francisco.  We explore this city in a way not many movies have.  It’s nomadic and not very polished visually, meaning the film as a whole feels as lost as Micah and Jo.  It’s a conversation, messy and enlightening, exploring ideas the way people do when they’re each working through them on their own.  It’s two people debating an issue on which they are still workshopping their own views.

Up Next: True Grit (2010), The Lookout (2007), Gerry (2002)

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