The disconnect between two people from similar cultural backgrounds. The pain of relationships breaking up and/or never happening. The wonders of a city lost in a strident class crisis. A single day of sex, drugs, soul searching, and music. This is the universe of Micah, the “second best” aquarium technician in all of San Francisco. A one night stand at a party has turned him from a fiery community activist and racial advocate to a combination hopeless romantic and unbearable cynic. The object of his (dis)affections is Joanne, the enigmatic gal pal of a white museum curator who appears privileged and acts passé. Together, they spend an eye-opening Sunday trying to piece together each other’s past while avoiding any chance at a future togetherness. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and definitely not the Medicine for Melancholy each person appears to need.
As plotlines go, this intriguing title really has little to offer. Micah and Joanne wake from a posh party, intersect throughout the next 36 hours, and then resolve their issues as only two still-strangers can. Somewhere near the back end of the last act, writer/director Barry Jenkins tosses in a random rally of local residents, their call to arms over Bay area rent controls and property price hikes adding fuel to the fires our leads have already lit. There’s also a sequence near the finale where Micah melts down the indie scene into a series of stereotypical human and sonic maxims. But for the rest of the time, Medicine for Melancholy is a tempting tone poem that never really breaks out into the kind of compelling free verse that would indicate something definitive or dramatic. Instead, it takes its cues from its characters and meanders around a little before slowly fading away.
By using San Francisco as a vital aspect to the story, Jenkins injects a great deal of local color into his mostly monochrome visuals. In fact, he purposely desaturates the print so that the clear contrasts between our two wannabe lovers remain ambiguous and blurred. We visit the Museum of African Diaspora, as well as a gorgeous urban art project consisting of manmade waterfalls and politicized slogans. Jenkins doesn’t do a lot outside of this, painting his pliable travelogues and letting the camera get in too close once Micah and Jo start interacting. One has to credit the filmmaker for avoiding certain formulaic pitfalls. He doesn’t mandate that his temporary paramours quip precociously, or take their emotions to some syrupy level of RomCom ridiculousness. Instead, this is a slice of life carved as carefully and considerately as the delicate balance demonstrated between the couple.
But there are troubles here, problems that pop up like unwanted extras in a crowd scene and keep us from caring too much for anything Micah or Jo have to offer. When dissecting the concept of “interracial” romance, our hero fails to recognize his own obvious attraction to women of light skin tone (in an aside, we see a MySpace post featuring a clearly Caucasian ex). Jo is the perfect antithesis of what he rants about - porcelain features hinting at a mixed lineage that goes totally unmentioned. In fact, the whole “black is black” element doesn’t get a lot of explanation. Instead, Jenkins plays it like a fact when all it really stands as is an assertion. Before long, the debate starts to turn circular and then careless. Because they’re so closed mouthed, Medicine for Melancholy‘s leads create just as much confusion as the man putting the half-completed thoughts in their mouths.
And then there’s the issue of chemistry. Actors Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins are model agency apropos for their parts, each one exuding the kind of iconoclastic radiance the simply story requires. But there’s no sizzle between them, no inherent need for them to be together. Indeed, much of the time, Jo seems to simply be playing Micah for a weekend reprieve from her stuffy, sterile life - and that would be fine, as long as we find the pair perfectly matched. But beyond the exterior, our couple trades in cross-purposes. He’s earthy without being totally bohemian. She’s cultivated without becoming a sculpture. Still, we keep waiting for the moment when their combination brings on the heat. Sadly, it never comes.
Indeed, many in the mainstream audience will look at this obviously independent effort and wonder why the She’s Gotta Have It era Spike Lee doesn’t sue. Others will find it almost impossible to overcome the obstacles of limited plotline, unclear characterization, and dramatic pauses large enough to drive a few dozen cable cars through. San Francisco obviously has many, many problems regarding the gentrification of neighborhoods, and ill-prepared viewers would be carping like crazy had Medicine for Melancholy turned into some preachy social statement. But there’s such a thing as being too inconspicuous. Jenkins needed to turn down the ambience and amplify the action, if only a little. And no, montages of his cast dancing to various underground poptones doesn’t count.
It’s been said that the title is taken from a 1959 Ray Bradbury anthology. That would make sense, considering the science fiction author once said that, in order to create a literary fiction, all you had to do was “find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her around all day long.” That describes Medicine for Melancholy perfectly. Jenkins obviously believes that he’s fostered personalities so complex and personable that we’ll gladly track them as they explore the outer reaches of Northern California and the inner areas of their own identities. Sometimes, he’s absolutely right. At other instances, we stand around like strangers at friend’s function and pray for our chance to exit. This is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s really not enough here to remain memorable.