MOVIE REVIEW                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Medicine For Melancholy

Tracey Heggins as Jo' and Wyatt Cenac as Micah in a scene from Barry Jenkins' feature film directing debut "Medicine For Melancholy".  Here the actors are
at the Museum Of The African Diaspora in San Francisco, immersing themselves in one of the last vestiges of black life and culture in the intimate city
whose black population is rapidly dwindling.  (Photo: IFC Films)

The Pursuit Of Happiness (And Belonging) In San Francisco, 2009
By Omar P.L. Moore/
Friday, March 6, 2009   

Very few films set in San Francisco have the eloquence, poetry, tenderness and sincerity that "Medicine For Melancholy" does.  Barry Jenkins' feature film debut (he directed the short films "My Josephine" and "Little Brown Boy") was shot entirely in the City By The Bay, and mostly on the fly, with only one scene that was permitted by the city's Film Commission.  The lack of shooting permits by the Commission doesn't stifle the realism and texture of the film, which are immediate and palpable, especially to residents of San Francisco who haven't come here by way of the dotcom boom of the mid and late 1990's.  Mr. Jenkins' film belongs to the natives of San Francisco, the working class denizens who strive everyday to work hard and carve out an honest and decent living.  Tourists who watch "Medicine For Melancholy" won't recognize the City as the one they've enjoyed: there's no Golden Gate Bridge to marvel at or cable cars to ride on or Lombard Street (at least the world's most crooked part of that street) to drive down.

"Medicine For Melancholy" is a two-person drama starring first-time big screen actors Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins.  Mr. Cenac is Micah and Miss Heggins is Jo'.  We see them lying in bed.  They are not basking in the afterglow of a one-night-stand, although that is exactly where they are situated, strangers in the morning exchanging glances and wordless interaction.  They work backwards, getting to know each other after the bedroom affair that has proceeded a night of heavy drinking.  Micah and Jo' seek belonging in San Francisco, with Jo' a San Francisco transplant now living in the East Bay and Micah still hanging on in the city that he loves in its Noe Valley District.  Micah doles out some disturbing facts about the supposedly diverse city, with its rapidly-dwindling black population (less than 7% of San Francisco is inhabited by black residents), and makes jokes about San Francisco's predominantly white Marina District.  Micah's had it up to the sky with feeling left out and on the fringes, while Jo', whose sensitivity to race isn't as sharp, is just trying to get through from day to day intact and alive.

The development of this uneasy couple's interactions runs slowly but effortlessly like the last but substantive vestiges of Tabasco sauce that gradually oozes from its bottle to blanket expectant food with spice and heat. 

Mr. Jenkins, who also wrote "Medicine", uses high definition video cameras to capture raw and indelible black and white imagery, with flashes of color that punctuate the characters' moods and feelings.  The cinematography by James Laxton is crisp and resonant; we're on the real streets of San Francisco and not in "The Pursuit Of Happyness" San Francisco, which looked far more pristine even as it told the true San Francisco story of Chris Gardner's rise from homeless single father to billionaire.  That film, which was also shot in San Francisco, didn't address racial politics, where this one does in plain-spoken and authentic dialogue.  Apart from being influenced by Claire Denis' wondrous "Friday Night" ("Vendredi Soir"), Mr. Jenkins has a style that is as easy-going as a relaxed Californian (an oxymoron, perhaps?)  In "Medicine For Melancholy" both Mr. Cenac and Ms. Heggins strike the right balance with their natural performances: they are impressive and tender as lovers and friends onscreen -- definitely the genuine article.  Considering both are from Los Angeles, they strike a comfortable outfit as Bay-siders.  By the time the film ends we feel that we have lived an important sliver of their characters' lives with them. 

Mr. Jenkins' award-winning film (at last year's San Francisco and Toronto International Film Festivals among many others) also addresses poverty and the issue of gentrification and the pervasive ushering and pricing-out of working class San Franciscans out of the city and into East Bay cities like Oakland and Hayward, more affordable than San Francisco but now also steadily rising places in which to live.  The steady decline of black and middle-income residents has been occurring in San Francisco over the last 50-plus years, most notably starting with the pushing of long-time black residents out of the City's Fillmore District, a formerly predominantly black neighborhood.  "Medicine For Melancholy" diverts a few minutes of attention to an actual meeting of a housing rights association in San Francisco as if to underscore some of the points that Micah makes about the dwindling longtime working stiffs in Northern California's most famous city.  The film's soundtrack is infectious, featuring artists that will be familiar to some, but all should acquaint themselves with the music as much as with this bright, moody and important film.

"Medicine For Melancholy" opened exclusively today in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas.  The film, which is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America, has been playing in Detroit, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles over the last few weeks.  The film's running time is one hour and 28 minutes.  In color and black and white.  Distributed in the U.S. by IFC Films.

Related: Trailer for "Medicine For Melancholy"

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2009.  All Rights Reserved.


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