Medicine for Melancholy

Barry Jenkins’ sharp, incisive romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy (IMDB) tells the story of two African-American twenty-somethings, Micah and Joanne, as they wander the streets of San Francisco over the course of a day after having a one-night stand at a party.  Their conversation begins tentatively, almost accidentally, after Micah realizes that Joanne left her purse in a cab they had shared the morning after meeting.  But soon, the two of them discover shared interests in music and art and spend a day biking to different places in San Francisco, looking at art, sharing meals, and filling time with conversation about their lives.  The image of two lovers moving restlessly through city streets recalls, to some extent, similar plots in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but unlike these films, Medicine uses its characters to meditate on the rapidly changing, gentrifying spaces in San Francisco, creating not only an emotionally powerful film but also one that challenges viewers to reflect on social class, gentrification, and indie culture in some complex ways.

Medicine for Melancholy explores these themes through the interactions between Micah (Wyatt Cenac of The Daily Show), an aquarium installer, and Joanne (Tracey Heggins), a t-shirt designer.  As Micah and Joanne become acquainted, we learn that Joanne’s boyfriend is an art dealer, away in London on business, and he’s white.  While we never see the boyfriend, his whiteness becomes a key point of conversation between the working-class Micah and the upper-middle class Joanne, an issue that is reflected in the tony, but somewhat sterile apartment where Joanne lives, one that Micah is quick to point out has no art on its walls. These issues of class and race and their relationship to San Francisco’s indie scene bring up, as A.O. Scott points out, a number of questions about “self-definition,” as Micah seeks to uncover–and wrestle with–the homogeneity of the hipster culture the two of them inhabit.

But as Scott also points out, Medicine for Melancholy is far from a polemic.  Instead, the film plays as a sincere reflection on the ways in which San Francisco, like many cities, seems to be rebuilding itself by pushing its poorer residents out.  Medicine does this, in part, through the use of a deeply desaturated, almost monochromatic, cinematography.  As Karina Longworth points out, “in such a literally colorless landscape, it’s a freak occurence that our protagonists have met at all.” And while there are moments in which we get brilliant flashes of color, the dulled cinematography forces us to see San Francisco in a slightly different way, to see it through Micah’s eyes as whitewahsed and dull, but also as Karina observes, strangely beautiful (it would, in fact, be interesting to compare the depiction of San Francisco in Medicine to the somewhat more celebratory Milk).

Notably, these concerns are even reflected in one of the promotions for the film, sponsored by IFC, that asks fans to submit photographs of places in their city: “Whether you’re in Seattle, New York, Des Moines, or wherever, we want to see how your city inspires you, how it effects the romantic, social, and political aspects of your life.”  The photographs submitted thus far offer a mosaic of social space, one that is in keeping with the film’s overall themes of the politics of space and the effect of those issues on the possible romance between two people who had been complete strangers just a few hours earlier.

Medicine for Melancholy’s cinematography and its use of street locations in San Francisco gave the film an almost documentary feel in places, at least for me (although Andrew O’Hehir, a longtime resident of San Francisco, had nearly the opposite experience).  This documentary quality emerged most explicitly for me during a scene relatively late in the film involving members of a housing rights committee who discuss the housing changes, including changes in rent control rules, that are affecting San Francisco’s working class and poor residents.  We learn, for example, that only seven percent of all San Francisco residents are black.  This scene, almost jarring in its introduction and execution, pushes Medicine for Melancholy well beyond what O’Hehir describes as the “Before Sunrise…almost-romance genre.”  It also helps make it one of the more compelling and thoughtful films I’ve seen in a long time.

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