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Crossroads Review: Medicine for Melancholy

April 4, 2009

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Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins feature debut, is as much about the shades of difference that divide us as it is the shared cultural experience in a gentrified city hellbent on destroying what makes it unique. For the two main characters, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), a lazy afternoon spent exploring the city is as much about two black twenty somethings recovering from a drunken one-night stand as it is understanding how we claim our identity. The film is an intimate and elegant rambling bicycle trip through a city they love despite Micah’s hatred for what it is becoming.

The two awake at a party where we are unclear in their relationship but the terse awkward non-dialogue clues us in that something doesn’t quite fit with the two. The film opens in black and white but subtle shades of color, first the pink of her shirt, then a blue hat on a coat rack emerge.

Often a tense breakfast, Jo quickly makes her escape only to leave her wallet behind which sets in motion Micah’s search for her. As their story develops so do the colors of the city at times emerging in brilliant life, other times subtle shades, her shirt, a street light, a tree. As Jenkin’s explores the characters as they explore the city, the colors expand, blooming during more passionate moments and fading in the more mundane scenes.

After Micah finds Jo at her apartment, events are set in motion for the two to spend the day on the streets of San Francisco, meandering through the hills, art world, club scenes, often undercutting expectations with comedic dialogue between characters. In one of the funniest moments of the film, the two find themselves at a taco stand encountering two men who are concerned for their hydration.

Although there are similarities to another film, Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, in that it is about two people rambling through a city with little plot intended, Jenkins makes much more of a statement with his film and with his characters. While the two explore the city that has been quietly pushing people of color and of lower economic status out of its borders since the 60’s, the two are in fact a microcosm of that fate. Jo, while considering herself an artist, lives in a very different San Francisco than Micah. This is evident when he takes her to a museum on black history, a place she didn’t know existed. She takes him to a gallery but he is forced to wait outside.

Jenkins pushes gently with the issue of race in the city, but it is often more of an overarching statement in the gentrification of San Francisco. Although the film follows two black hipsters, it is as much about a city that has become the very rich and the very poor.

The two never come to agreement on what it means to be black in San Francisco, which is exactly the point – identity is what you define – not based on one thing. Even when Micah continues to question the issue, Jo uncovers his heart was recently broken by a Caucasian woman.

The parallels between the two when they visit each other’s apartment are also something of note. They are done casually yet the humor and warmth in in the scenes comes across. We understand despite Jo’s protests, she is as drawn to Micah as he is to her, even if it is only going to be one day that they can share.

IFC acquired distribution rights to the film and can now be seen on IFC Demand.

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