'Medicine for Melancholy'


In "Medicine for Melancholy," writer-director Barry Jenkins takes a cautious rookie approach: He keeps things low-key, smooth and under control, sticking with two main characters while shutting out the rest of the world.

And yet the film, which recently screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, does not lack for ambition in terms of its themes and artistic design. Consequently, Jenkins' feature debut, while not flashy, shows promise. Clearly, here is a young filmmaker who wants to tell stories rather than deliver shocks and sensation.

The premise is as simple as it is believable. A man and woman wake up to discover they have slept together, but each is too hung over to remember the details. The woman (Tracey Heggins) wants to put the whole embarrassing episode behind her. The man (Wyatt Cenac) would actually like to know the woman he slept with, but she blocks his attempts to find out.

During the course of that day and into the evening, circumstances and the man's persistence force the couple to learn about each other and in a way about themselves. The couple is black, and the setting is San Francisco — a city with the smallest proportional black population of any major U.S. city, apparently. So this voyage of discovery takes the measure of their differing attitudes toward race, class, identity, gentrification and black anger.

Some of it feels a bit forced, but Jenkins takes the trouble to listen to his characters and allow each to make points worth considering.

Jenkins bleeds most of the color from his film so that it's almost black and white. He and cinematographer James Laxton shoot San Francisco so that it becomes almost a third character. This might be one of the best cinematic tours of a city since Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke wandered through Paris in "Before Sunset." (partialdiff)