Last night at a party, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) hooked up. Now it's the morning after, and it's awkward. She's guarded, a little chilly, but he seems easy to like. He talks her into a cup of coffee. Then they share a cab. Then she bolts. But she's left her wallet behind. He decides to track her down.
It turns out that she has a boyfriend, who's out of town.
"Is he white?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes and no."
In an earlier conversation, it came out that Jo doesn't pay rent. The boyfriend is the reason why. She guesses right that Micah is a little righteous. Underneath his open disposition, there is woundedness, anger, despair. And underneath her stricken conscience, there is affinity and real attraction.
These are the stakes in Medicine for Melancholy, local writer-director Barry Jenkins' breezily quotidian and much-buzzed-about feature debut. And although it's designed as one of those movies in which nothing really happens, because things happening would ruin it, stakes do get raised. Jenkins has it in mind to build a courtship around how it feels to be a minority in a gentrifying city. But not just any minority, and not just any city.
San Francisco is a character in Medicine for Melancholy, but not in a way it has been in movies before. There were a few rules going in. No trolley cars, no Golden Gate Bridge, no Fisherman's Wharf. There are landmarks, of sorts, like the Knockout and Rainbow Grocery. But they're landmarks for hipsters, not for tourists. The movie even has a set piece, as its characters flow through the city's streets on the requisite fixed-gear bikes. The problem, as Micah eventually blurts in drunken desperation, is that "everything about being indie is all tied to not being black."
In other words, it's still a place of easy and obvious charm, of beauty and romance, but not an easy place for the black 7 percent of its population to live. And while Medicine for Melancholy certainly is the first film to dramatize these ideas, the question of whether it's an entirely successful dramatization may have to remain open. The actors do their best to lighten the starch in their sometimes stiffly Socratic conversation, and Jenkins often offsets it with buoyantly rhythmic swirls of motion and music. Yet, in the same way that there always seems to be a guitar handy for Micah or Jo to pick up and use to underline the movie's affably arty tone, there also seems to be a fair housing meeting handy for them to witness in order for Jenkins to underline its theme. Inserting footage of this real event as a deliberate, knowingly didactic narrative interruption is a bold move, but is that knowingness enough of a dramatic solution? Discuss.
Maybe what matters most is that the tone of Medicine for Melancholy's voice is so appealingly original -- and yet there is a chorus with which it harmonizes quite nicely. Consider the late Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs' final project, 1994's Black is...Black Ain't, another inquiry into individual and collective identity which had every right to be shrilly argumentative but instead came off as beautifully disarming. "We've got to start talking about the ways in which we hurt each other," Riggs said in that film. And that's just what Barry Jenkins is doing.
Medicine for Melancholy opens Friday, March 6, 2009, at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit http://www.landmarktheathres.com.