Somehow, while Hollywood barrages us with mindless action blockbusters and unnecessary sequel upon unnecessary sequel (I can understand franchises sequels like Transporter 3 and even Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, but Get Smart 2 and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 - what is happening? ), an eclectic group of American filmmakers is still successfully churning out some of the best independent film of the last decade.
A DNA test would show these films from 2008 to be fraternal twins, if not identical: Ballast (Lance Hammer), Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt), In Search of a Midnight Kiss (Alex Holdridge), Frozen River (Courtney Hunt), and The Pool (Chris Smith) - and those are just the ones I've seen. Their shared traits: two or three principle characters, a bare bones plot about current social issues, a subtle and possibly nonexistent musical score, stark cinematography, and decidedly untidy endings. Of course they're also all quite good (four of them were in my Best of 2008 list, and Wendy and Lucy might have snuck in had I seen it earlier), making the fact that they received so little attention even more disappointing.
Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy unfortunately seems headed for the same quiet fate. A late 2008 arrival that may find more of an audience in 2009 on DVD and in limited release, it's a deceptively loaded film that, likes its characters, quickly sheds itself of stereotypes in carving out its own niche in the romantic drama genre. Meditative and unhurried, Medicine for Melancholy strikes a comfortable balance between lighthearted comedy, passionate romance, thoughtful drama and, of all things, cultural identity and social justice. It's like Before Sunrise with a conscience.
Unlike the contemplative pair of Jesse and Celine, however, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) meet under less romantic circumstances: shamefully in each other's arms after an inebriated one night stand. The next day, Sunday, starts out with a painfully awkward breakfast at a local cafe (they learn each other's names) followed by a uncomfortably forced conversation in the cab ride to their respective San Francisco apartments. Jo is in a serious relationship with a white guy, which aside from irritating Micah simply makes him all the more determined to win her over.
These issues around race are thoroughly explored while hardly discussed at all. Yes, Micah is vocal about his frustration with the history of socioeconomic segregation in San Francisco and that people of color are always patronized in the "indie" scene and that African-Americans make up a minuscule percentage of homeowners in the city, but he never preaches, and neither does the movie. In the hands of the brilliant Spike Lee, for example, Medicine for Melancholy would have become tiresome and likely abrasive. Barry Jenkins uses a softer touch, fortunately, and lets the camera and the city do the majority of the talking. The color is symbolically washed out from the film and we learn as much about the characters and their thoughts on race relations not by what they say, but by what they wear, do, eat, and listen to. Alex Holdridge used technique this to a lesser extent in In Search of a Midnight Kiss, and his beautiful shots of L.A. were more pretty than profound. Jenkins, on the other hand, is doing it with a lot more thought and for much more meaning.
There's little mystery as to how Micah and Jo's relationship will progress throughout the day (even though Jo asks in the form of a declaration, "This is a one night stand."), but Medicine for Melancholy isn't a romance in the traditional sense anyway. Cenac and Heggins provide Micah and Jo with real weight and emotion, and although this may be partly because we've never seen them before, it's all because they do an excellent job naturally settling into their roles. Amusingly, their acting is a little shaky at the beginning, but then again so are the characters themselves as they work their way out of an awkward situation. Is it by design? With as much careful thought as appears to have gone into the other aspects of Medicine for Melancholy, I wouldn't be surprised.
Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the soundtrack at some point, if only because people who are into indie rock (I'm only marginally so) will probably consider it a gold mine. I don't recognize any of the songs and only two of the artists - Tom Waits and Wyatt Cenac (who plays Micah) - but you should know by now that I'm game for any song that fits the right scene, and it should come as no surprise that Jenkins succeeds with the music as well as he does everything else.
I saw Medicine for Melancholy more than three weeks ago and it's yet to begin to fade into the recesses of my movie memory. On paper it's obviously the type of film I would love (tell me you're surprised at my grade), but it's still been "stickier" than I expected, and it's the best type of movie in that sense because I find myself still connecting it to real life. There's a sense that, like the other American Independent New Wave movies from 2008, Medicine for Melancholy taps into some universal human condition that we're all able to relate to despite differences in race, class, gender, and other seemingly obtrusive social divisions. You might not see yourself in these movies, but you see yourself in them.
Writing - 9
Acting - 9
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5
Total: 46/50= 92% = A-