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Micah (Wyatt Cenac) takes Joanne (Tracey Heggins) to the Museum of the African Diaspora on a Sunday afternoon. They woke up that morning in somebody else's house not knowing each other's names after a one-night stand at a party where they both got very drunk. It's San Francisco. They're black. They ride bikes. She was very unfriendly at first, not just because it was a drunken coupling but because she has a white curator boyfriend she lives with who just happens to be in London for the moment, but she loves him.
The first part of this first film by Barry Jenkins, which is shot in digital video tuned to be almost but not quite totally drained of color (like the city, as we are to learn), with pale grays and very white whites, is sustained by Micah's efforts to make Joanne want to spend some time with him. He thinks they ought to get to know each other, and it's a Sunday. She's not at all interested at first. They're both hung over, after all. She lets him take her home in a taxi and then just gets out and runs. But she leaves her wallet on the floor. To go back and find her it takes a search, on his bike, across town, because the address on her license isn't current. The film is also sustained by being very specifically shot in San Francisco. When Joanne goes to a gallery to run an errand it's a very specific gallery. The Museum of the African Diaspora is the Museum of the African Diaspora. The light is San Francisco light. Micah and Joanne are young urban sophisticates. That, as Micah points out, is not only specific but makes them a small minority of a small minority, because gentrification has shrunk the city's blacks to 7% of the city population (New York's proportion is 28%).
Later buying groceries for dinner at his place (because Micah succeeds and Joanne does spend the day with him, and more) they happen upon a group discussing what appears to be the imminent banishment of rent control in San Francisco. Is Jenkins lecturing us, or just treading water? It doesn't matter so much, because the interactions of Micah and Joanne and the wry, cautious words they use when they talk to each other remain central, and are as specific and accurate to who they are (if not to San Francisco) as the cityscapes and the special light.
These two fine actors and this sensitive filmmaker certainly know how to make it real and to record how unpredictably things change from minute to minute. When Micah takes Joanne to the museum, instead of SFMoMA (her original suggestion), and then to the Martin Luther King Memorial at Yerba Buena Center, maybe it's turning into a pretty cool date. But when he leads her over a little bridge there and says, "This is like LA," she just rather coldly says, "Never been," and then, rubbing it in once more and pulling back, "This is a one-night stand." A ride on the merry-go-round at Yerba Buena, she seems to be saying, isn't going to change anything. This delicate homage to a moment is also a rueful acknowledgment of how hard it is to change the way things are.
And it has to be a bit of a lecture, because Micah is "born and raised," while Joanne is a "transplant," and he wants to remind her how the Fillmore and the Lower Haight were wiped out in the Sixties in "Urban Redevelopment:" goodbye black people, goodbye white artists. Micah lives in an immaculate little apartment in the Tenderloin. Micah, as the voice of Barry Jenkins, wants to reclaim San Francisco for everyday people.
Actually, Micah and Joanne seem like a perfect couple. Maybe that's why they can't be together, except just for this one day? You want to just shout out to them, "Can't you just be friends?" They fit so well together. Is this 'Medicine for Melancholy' or just 'melancholy'? Maybe it's medicine 'and' melancholy. That must be it. A fine little lyric of people and a place. And wholly without cliché except maybe for the tagline: "A night they barely remember becomes a day they'll never forget. "
Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008. This had its debut at SXSW, the South by Southwest Interactive event in Austin, Texas. 'Medicine for Melancholy' tied for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature in San Francisco with Rodrigo Pla's 'La Zona.'
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