In the manner characteristic of low-budget “issue” films, Medicine for Melancholy is a french-braided triptych of progressive themes—reluctant romance, race, and urban displacement—interwoven by the circuitous gab of an unremarkable but authentic two-person cast. Each of these three topics is given its own compartmentalized narrative thread, but unlike with other multi-layered works of metropolitan malaise (The Visitor immediately springs to mind), all three of the socio-humanist plotlines uniformly fail along with the leads’ addled relationship.
The love story, and the film, opens on a comic crutch: At dawn, African-American bedfellows Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) retrace the inebriated, hormonal footsteps of an impromptu one-night stand with humiliating ignorance. Jo resists Micah’s sober advances but Micah continues hounding, suffering from the misconception that their accidental sex possessed a germ of meaning. Biographical details begin to emerge. Micah lives in the modest but colorful Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, Jo in the affluent Marina with her presumably yuppy (and Caucasian) boyfriend, whom we never see. Micah balks at Jo’s lifestyle and her lack of ethnic fidelity; Jo insists that Micah’s self-image is reductive. Somehow their garrulous dialectic inspires them to make love again. They cease to become individual characters and float into the hazardous waters of over-generalized world-view emblems.
Being a native of the East Bay, I admire writer-director Barry Jenkins’s attempts to represent the fractured identity of San Francisco with borderline caricature, but the racial symbols trip over necessitous plot contrivances. Where are the plentiful Asians and Hispanics that populate the city’s underbelly? As with the overbearingly deliberate cinematography, the skin color of the cast is egregiously two-toned for an area this diversified (to suggest African-American and Caucasian as the polar opposites of ethnic-metro identity is a hopeless fantasy). And even disregarding the glaring demographic omissions, one wonders at the ease with which Micah—the quintessentially self-proclaimed “angry young black man”—continually seduces Jo away from her vaguely fastidious, white, art curator lover. Jenkins depicts Micah as flawed but seems alarmingly drawn to his proud creed of separatism and anti-miscegenation.
The occasional moments of genuine beauty are unsurprisingly visual—one dolly shot drawing us into the meniscus of a 50-gallon aquarium hauntingly drips light—but the ubiquitous editorializing urges us to dismiss the scant poetic potential. During one odd scene we’re shown a group of young people bemoaning the proposed moratorium on rent control in the city—which they conclude would eradicate “everything [they] love about San Francisco over night.” And yet afterward Jenkins abruptly shows us placid, moonlit streets bereft of homeless derelicts, graffiti, or dilapidation. Medicine for Melancholy is a dreamy postcard of San Francisco, ultimately just as repressive as Jo’s gentrified apartment. Examining the Ansel Adams-like cityscapes and Irving Penn-influenced portraiture one would never assume there was any cause for grumbling.