Another that I’ve put off watching for a little bit, and another one that was more than worth the wait. I’ll go quick plot first, and then talk some stylistics in here:
Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) are mid-late 20-somethings in San Francisco. They’ve just had a one-night stand. He’s talkative and outgoing the morning-after. She’s shy and elusive. He pursues, she evades. Luckily for him, she leaves her ID in their shared taxi. He tracks her down and, despite her having a boyfriend abroad, they spend the next 24 hours together exploring the city, making love, and arguing racial politics.
This is an incredibly simple setup but the writing feels so true and heartfelt. I’m curious how much, if any, was improvised. Shot on an HVX-200 – for those who aren’t familiar – it’s a pro-sumer model camera at best at this point – and for what appears to be an extremely low budget, director Barry Jenkins makes it count.
There are plenty of nods to French New Wave films, an acknowledged influence, including one out-and-out wink when Micah makes faces at himself in his bathroom mirror ala Breathless’ Belmondo. But it’s more than just shot/scene reference. The handheld camera, the “political asides,” and the youthfulness (at times) of the two characters also point back to these films. Strangely enough, for all of its whimsicality, Medicine for Melancholy is actually more serious than a Breathless.
One of Jenkins’ best moves in here is to explore the city of San Francisco. In an interview on the DVD he explains the de-saturated color palette as a way to keep things at bay, keep the surroundings in the mix and present, but not make them the focal point. The characters visit museums, walk the streets, hit a club and talk history. They pass a meeting where a few activists discuss gentrification. He’s more politically radical then she and his discussions of the black-white divide (her boyfriend is white) piss her off to no end. But Jenkins is wise to keep Micah likable regardless and some of the things he says seem to ring true (a poster on his wall of a 1960s political platform labeled “Lies” which he defends to Jo as “still relevant today”) and others ring as possibly naive (his theory that Black History Month is in February because it’s the shortest month. Her response: it coincides with the births of Frederick Douglass among others).
There are plenty of interludes in what must have been a maximum 70-page script. Jenkins shoots the city lovingly and, though he tends to avoid lensing any rougher neighborhoods that Micah or the passing activists debate, its presence continues to lurk in the conversation between the two.
If there’s any critique to be had of Medicine, aside from perhaps the aforementioned neglecting of certain areas, it’s that Jenkins spends too much time on a music-video “we’re young” aesthetic, which eventually gets a bit tiring. One too many montages of smiling faces with a handheld camera.
There’s an interesting moment in this film which takes place entirely over a black screen. I can’t pretend to know whose voice it is, but it takes place just at the end of Micah and Jo’s trip to a museum. The cut away from it shows Jo with headphone on, Micah watching her. Is she listening to the words we just heard? Or is this another aside, ala the later activists, and is purely Jenkins’ “voice”? We never know, but it seems to work on both levels.
There are some really nice small screenwriting things in here. First scene we see Micah brush his teeth with toothpaste on his finger. Okay, I know it’s not his place. But then Jo comes in, they don’t speak – the awkwardness yells – and she does the same. So I get it’s neither of their place. It’s a really well-done introduction to where they are and what happened without any boring exposition (“I can’t believe we came to this party that’s not at either of our apartments and slept together…”).
When I was talking about The Band’s Visit I was talking about the frame as the joke – camera placement equaling the humor. If you change the camera position, you lose the punchline. There’s not a direct equivalent in Medicine for Melancholy, but it is an interesting look – and not alone in this regard – at camera position for emotional resonance. Jenkins’ love of the close-up, a DJ’s heading occasionally blocking a strobe light that flares out the lens, a wide-shot framing Micah in the lower right corner with SF looming behind, the camera peering down and through a fire-escape to find Jo on her bike on the street – all of these add up to a peculiar set of emotions that oscillate between outright joy at this fleeting meeting and sorrow at tomorrow .