Medicine for Melancholy



Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival.

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. It recently screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

And yet the film does not lack for ambition both in terms of its themes and artistic design. Consequently, his 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.

Over 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 city 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. When they stumble on a meeting about rent control in the Bay Area, it feels like an infomercial has been slammed into the movie. But Jenkins takes the trouble to listen to his characters and to allow each to make points worth considering. The man is as thoughtful about his anger and obsessions as the woman is wary and smart. Perhaps she simply avoids thinking about the very things he thinks about too much.

Jenkins bleeds most of the color from his film so that it’s almost a black-and-white movie. 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 Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset.”