Think of all the things that a little indie film like Medicine for Melancholy has got going against it. There are no giant robots and no zombies. No one gets cut in half. There are no car races, chases or crashes. There aren’t any cops, doctors or lawyers. There was no big budget. The only CGI is in the color manipulation. Despite having two hip young urbanites getting tanked two nights in a row, they are not doing their drinking in New York, L.A. or any other near-future dystopia. And the dope smoking is held to the minimum daily requirement. What was director Barry Jenkins thinking?
He was thinking that San Francisco would be a pretty cool place to shoot a film. No argument there. As Jenkins says in the included interview, “If this film had been made in New York or Chicago, it would not have been the same film.” The place is one of the characters and that’s a smart casting move. Jenkins has lived in San Francisco and you’ve got to think that a lot of Medicine is autobiographical.
And he must have been thinking that he was pretty lucky to get comedian Wyatt Cenac from the Daily Show to play Micah, the male half in a black twenty-something couple of strangers who go bump in the night and then bounce around white San Francisco the next day. First the drinking, then the sex, then waking up in a bed other than your own with a stranger next to you, then the hung-over introduction at breakfast. The 70’s live! Armistead Maupin must be proud.
In a clear case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, ‘Jo (Tracey Heggins) holds Micah at arm’s length as he attempts to strike some spark with her. She’s already in a relationship with a guy who’s out of town and just wants to forget that last night ever happened. Micah persists and succeeds in charming her, though she reminds him that this is only a one night stand... or in this case a “one day stand.” So they wander the city and I suspect we get to see some of Jenkins’ favorite places.
‘Jo suggests that they go to see some art. But Micah says “black people do not go to the art museum on a Sunday afternoon.” ‘Jo is surprised at his answer and we see that she is more ambivalent to the issue of race than Micah . Then in an interesting twist on black women getting on black men for dating white women, Micah criticizes ‘Jo for having a white boyfriend. “We’re always just hanging on to them,” he complains. ‘Jo is more liberal about who she dates and who she is. While Micah is (as with many white men ) more the social conservative. He’s all about keeping the Black Struggle alive and ‘Jo is all about moving on.
Jenkins also has an indy rock/alt agenda as he boosts his music preferences and playlists. Micah tests ‘Jo’s depth with his comparison game of music trivia. With this device, Jenkins shoots for cred with the audience as well as testing our depth. Scene and mood changes are also effectively introduced with sound bites of obscure music... well at least music unknown to me, so I probably missed some added meaning. The trouble with up-to-the-minute music hipness is that it has a short shelf life. Indeed the expiration date may have already passed on some of the sound track. In 20 years we can come back and admire it as a charming period piece.
Medicine covers a lot of urban ground but without being scattershot and everything relates to Micah’s perception of his life in San Francisco. Jenkins says that he picked San Francisco because it’s the whitest city in the U.S. (I assumed it was Portland, Oregon, but I’ll take his word for it). Although he’s San Francisco “born and raised,” Micah says feels he’s a stranger in a strange land. I assume that is also Jenkins speaking.
The racial isolation Micah feels is compounded by the gentrification of San Francisco. So the city is not only filled with white people, they are all rich. In the widest detour of the film, we sit in with an all-white group discussing the problems of living in a rich man’s town without the money to do so. Point made, but I wonder why it’s included since it’s said elsewhere by Micah.
Next to his love of music, Micah loves his bike. Micah rides a fixed gear rig with very edgy narrow handle bars. He is, as we used to say, stylin’. It must be practical for going down the steep hills of San Francisco... though I’m not sure about the uphill part . He recommends ‘Jo get a fixed-gear bike too and says “You’d be the first black girl to ride one down at the Marina... hell, you’d be the first black girl down at the Marina.”
This is Barry Jenkins’ first feature film. He and cinematographer James Laxton have done a great job. After the cast and location, the most striking thing about Medicine is the way Jenkins and Laxton have digitally played with the color. Most of the film is so de-saturated it’s essentially black and white, but hints of color keep creeping in (for instance the yellow in ‘Jo’s t-shirt) to remind you that there is still color there. And in what I took to be a slight but inverted reference to Wizard of Oz, the last minutes of the film are in near-full color. The relationship between Micah and ‘Jo is resolved, and it’s back to the real world and business as usual.
This was a pleasant little film and I hope that it gets a wider audience as a DVD. I’m looking forward to seeing what Jenkins does for an encore. Here’s an idea, how about a film about a isolated white guy living in Oakland? I’m just saying.
The extra feature on this DVD is a nice audio interview and slide show with Jenkins at the London Film Festival. It’s worth the time to listen to him talk about his film.
Picture and Sound
As noted above, the picture and sound are almost as important as the characters themselves. The DVD presents them very well.
How to Use This DVD
Jump on the Barry Jenkins bandwagon now and avoid the rush.