Sunday, February 1, 2009

Medicine for Melancholy

The morning after. There's a fleeting mix of excitement and shame that courses through the veins as you wake up (probably hungover), assessing your location (possibly not your place), and hoping with all your might that the warm body lying beside you is someone you can quickly identify/forget/maybe escape without awaking.

Yet in director Barry Jenkins' first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, he elevates the one night stand to something bigger than itself- a charming, self conscious dissection of social and cultural definition played within the backdrop of gentrification in San Francisco.

Micah (charmingly played by The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (a beautifully measured Tracey Heggins) are our accidental couple, awakening from their night of hipster revelry to a morning of uncertainty. After an awkward coffee, they quickly dissolve but eventually reunite partly by luck and partly by Micah's intiative. From there Jenkins takes us through a day in the life of a "morning after fantasy": an idyllic young pair finding personal connection after the physical; emotional intimacy after the lustful matter of fact.

But this isn't about love or a burgeoning relationship. It isn't about young African Americans struggling to reconcile their indie boho lifestyle with the societal constraints they're supposedly supposed to abide by. It's not about urban gentrification and cultural upheaval. Nor is it a cinematic love letter to the city of San Francisco (digitally shot as beautifully as an intermittent mix of subdued tones and flourishes of sparklingly color could possibly be). It's ALL of these things. Which is what makes Medicine both engagingly entertaining and disjointed.

Jenkins posits a beautiful love story of doubt and uses it as a canvas for the colors of complexity in modern relationships. Cenac's Micah aggressively argues about the notion of being "black" and its connotations, why something "indie automatically means something not black" and the internal conflicts of what being in an interracial relationship outwardly implies. Heggins' Jo nicely serves as his counterbalance, relishing the delicacy of being in the moment, all the while cautiously avoiding the "going back to your life tomorrow."

The most jarring sequence is arguably its least cohesive, as the film comes to a complete standstill and suddenly jumps into a conversation amongst real-life community activists lamenting the dissolution of their communities being displaced by the corporate gentrification quickly consuming their beloved city. Jenkins places Micah and Jo on the outside looking in, their romance disrupted by the inescapable reality that surrounds and defines them.

To their credit, Cenac and Heggins generate enough charm and sensuality to make their extended morning after an enjoyable ride, as the sequences exploring the city make San Francisco as alluring as its ever been on film. For a first feature, Jenkins avoids overcomplicating the discussion while still finding nuance within the form.

Though this morning after gradually winds down and gives way to an eventual tomorrow, its remnants still linger like the smell of fresh coffee on your clothes. You don't want to wash them just yet, but maybe hold onto the aroma of the moment just a little longer.

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