For all its considerable charm and sharpness, a patina of sadness coats Medicine for Melancholy, a new film written and directed by Barry Jenkins in limited theatrical release. The story focuses tightly on a man and a woman (Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins) in the wake of a one-night stand, and the initial awkwardness gives way to a tenuous connection, as the two quasi-bohos realize that they share many of the same cultural affinities (which Cenac’s character, Micah, refers to by the shorthand, “indie”). The stuff they like, Micah notes at one point, is decidedly about not being black.
This could all be cute and earnest in the way a lot of mumblecore is — quirky boy meets quirky girl in hip, scenester-ish town — but Melancholy has much bigger questions to ask.
Micah is a preternaturally chill native San Franciscan who feels increasingly alienated as the city rapidly gentrifies. “Imagine the Lower Haight filled with nothing but black folk and white artists,” he tells Jo, his would-be lover, about his long-gone San Fran. (It’s become the least black of America’s major cities.) Jo, wary at first but charming over time, is a transplant who doesn’t see the world in Micah’s specifically racialized terms, and it’s implied by the relative sizes of their living spaces that she occupies a higher position in the economic food chain. Both though, are black people partaking in a social milieu where Negroes are rarities. None of this tension is anywhere near as didactic as it may sound; these issues come up intermittently in the course of the pair walking and biking around, making each other laugh and generally feeling each other out.
The film is almost relentlessly plausible, and there are plenty of long silences between the two; they’ve had sex, but they don’t know each other. As well as they begin to connect, there’s enough difference in their respective outlooks for those things to become real fissures in the future — a future, which given the circumstances under which they’ve met, is far from assured. There are as many reasons for their dyad to work as there are for it not to. And so they (mostly) avoid discussing it.
The two leads are in just about every shot in the movie, and Cenac, best known for his work on The Daily Show, is a particular surprise. Tracey Heggins is the right mix of opaque and warm as Jo, and it’s obvious why Micah is so taken with her. Jenkins imbues Melancholy (which is shot almost completely in sepia tones) with an excellent sense of pace and place; San Francisco is as much a character as Jo or Micah. It’s Jenkins’s first film, and it’s an assured debut. Even the scene in which Micah and Jo listen in on a community meeting on the city’s rent control laws doesn’t seem forced, though by all rights it should have.
I saw Melancholy two days ago, and I’ve been trying to get it out of my head since then. No dice. It’s the rare film that gets everything right about city life: random connection, anonymity, loneliness, class tensions, and most importantly — possibility.