With Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins makes an impressive directorial debut

Medicine for Melancholy

on July 09, 2008 by Chad Greene
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“Sorry” is the first word that passes between the excellent leads in Medicine for Melancholy, two twentysomething African-American indie scenesters struggling through a bout of morning-after awkwardness in the wake of a one-night stand. But when it comes to his superb directorial debut, Barry Jenkins has almost nothing to apologize for—and neither will the exhibitors who take a chance on this small, lovely romance when IFC releases it in 2009.

Wyatt Cenac, a comedian and a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is incredibly charismatic as Micah—the male half of the hook-up. Heartbroken by an acrimonious split from a white girlfriend, he wants to spend some daylight time with his strange—but striking—bedfellow (Tracey Heggins). Although he charms her into sharing a cup of coffee and cab ride (“Unless you want to race cabs, or something,” he cracks.), the terse responses of the woman who initially identifies herself as “Angela” make it clear that she wants to simply slip back into her normal life as if nothing had happened between the two of them.

Just as he’s about to exit the taxi himself, however, Micah finds her wallet on the floorboards. Shifting through its contents in an attempt to track “Angela” down and return it, he quickly discovers two things: She is actually called Joann and hasn’t bothered to keep the address on her driver’s license current. So Micah slings his messenger bag over his shoulder and sets out on his fixed-gear bike, heading back to the neighborhood where Jo’ hopped out of the cab.

Eventually, he knocks on the right door and says the right thing. What follows is a visually stylish chronicle of an at-times amiable ramble through the streets of San Francisco—with the witty banter about topics like the superiority of originals over the subsequent songs that sampled them (Rick James’ “Super Freak” versus MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” for instance) gradually giving way to charged discussions of interracial relationships after Micah realizes that Jo’ has a white boyfriend.

“What? Because I’m black, and you’re black, we should be together?” Jo’ exclaims in exasperation at one point.

There are few flaws in Medicine for Melancholy, which won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival. The most notable are a couple of earnest sequences, one in which Micah and Jo’ explore the Museum of the African Diaspora and another in which they eavesdrop on a community meeting about the negative effects of gentrification on the amount of affordable housing in San Francisco. While both are thematically appropriate, these intellectual interludes are not integrated smoothly enough with the naturalistic exchanges between Jo’ and Micah.

Still, Jenkins has no reason to be Melancholy —or sorry—about the way his first feature turned out.

This film was reviewed at the Los Angeles Film Festival

Distributor: IFC
Cast: Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins
Director/Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
Producer: Justin Barber
Genre: Drama/Romance
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: 2009 TBD

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