Friday, May 02, 2008

IFFB 2008: Medicine for Melancholy

Of all the filmmakers I saw doing Q&As at the festival (a bunch, especially considering The Twelve had eleven), I think Barry Jenkins has to be one of the most enjoyable to watch. The man was just excited to be at the festival, and from the way he described the writing and making of the Medicine for Melancholy, I wouldn't be surprised if he was that way on set, which must have been a great deal of fun for everyone involved.

Medicine for Melancholy

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2008 at the Somerville Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The "getting to know you" movie is a vital part of the independent film scene. Aside from being something that can be shot on a budget - get a couple actors, some friendly locations, and a script with interesting things to say, and you're good to go. It certainly doesn't hurt that they often play against independent film type: Rather than trying to prove their sophistication by showing how screwed up relationships can become, they tend to be hopeful and positive, and try to photograph their beloved settings at their best.

With Medicine for Melancholy, the location is San Francisco, and the couple who discovers their chemistry after a random meeting is Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and JoAnn (Tracey Heggins). They awake from a drunken hookup at a party the night before with Micah far more smitten than Jo', who just wants to go home and forget the whole thing. Sharing a cab home doesn't get Micah any closer at first, but fate has her drop her wallet on the cab's floor. He tracks her down, and his persistence gets him a little more time to charm her. There's obstacles, of course - Micah finds Jo at her boyfriend's place, and his recent break-up has him not necessarily acting on the best motivations.

Jo', to her credit, picks up on it fairly quickly, wanting to know how much of Micah's interest is from who she is individually and how much is from both being black. Race is a constant factor, with Micah quick to point out that San Francisco has one of the smallest populations of African-Americans for a city its size, a number he discounts further by excluding folks who see themselves as part of some other group first (hipsters and the like) and then lamenting that when he does see another black person, he or she has an arm around a white person. It's interesting how writer/director Barry Jenkins presents the issue - as much as Micah's pride in his heritage is to be admired, his obsession with it is a little unnerving. It's not hard to see why, despite how charming and intelligent Micah is, his constant returns to the subject are anything but reassuring to Jo'.

Their African-American heritage also plays a role in which parts of San Francisco Jenkins highlights as the pair spend the day together; Micah turns his nose up at the museum Jo' suggests and instead brings them to MOAD (the Museum of the African Diaspora); other scenes take place among statues honoring the civil right movement. That is, however, just a portion of the city that we visit. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton capture it with sharp photography desaturated almost to the point of being black and white (except for a pair of segments), staying away from familiar landmarks but still capturing the hilly terrain and frequent juxtapositions of squeaky-clean and grimy neighborhoods that make the city unique. He also puts the characters on bicycles, keeping them in the open air without tying them to a limited area.

There's not a lot of talking to be done on bikes, and that's some of the best times to watch the characters enjoying themselves, free as only people moving under their own power can be. The actors playing the couple portray that simple pleasure beautifully, and are just as charming when they're interacting more directly. Cenac is a comedian by trade, and as expected can tell a story or deliver a story with the best. Even though there is an undercurrent of anger or hurt to a lot of his actions, he's genuinely charming and funny, and for all Micah's faults, Cenac is able to convince the audience that his anger at the city and the world comes from how much he loves it and expects better. Heggins makes Jo' optimistic in the places where Micah is jaded, and though she sometimes comes off as a little naïve, she's also more open to complexity and individuality than Micah. There's a nice chemistry between them, too, although it's neither instant nor perfect; one can see how they're drawn to each other but still need to feel each other out.

Jenkins doesn't just turn the camera on and expect this chemistry to do its thing; he chooses and creates little moments that ring true. I love when the driver of the cab Micah and Jo' share is surprised that Micah's stop is on the other side of town, and Micah gives him this "c'mon, why do you think I did this?" dismissal; I like the story of what Micah does for a living; I like the dealer-looking guys pushing hydration outside a club. He gives his characters interesting things to talk about, though sometimes he gets carried away with it (though the scene of advocates talking about the need for rent control isn't nearly as out of place as it could be).

Which makes getting to know Micah and Jo' a distinct pleasure.

Also on EFC.

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