There's always one film at SXSW where I walk in completely cold, knowing nothing except that it fit the right timeslot for me, or that another festivalgoer strongly recommended it. Former Cinematical editor Karina Longworth urged me to see Medicine for Melancholy but didn't say much about why ... and the only other thing I knew was that it was a narrative feature, because I felt like I'd seen too many documentaries so far and needed some balance. Karina must not have been the only one at SXSW recommending the film, because the Alamo Ritz was full at the screening I attended.
Medicine for Melancholy turned out to be a lovely, sweet film, which reminded me in some ways of Aaron Katz's film Quiet City (my DVD review is here). Again, we follow two characters as they explore a city in fairly ordinary ways, while at the same time suspense lingers about their relationship. Both films also use the arts -- art galleries or museums, and music -- to enhance their character studies and their look at city life. However, in this first feature from writer-director Barry Jenkins, the city is San Francisco (primarily the east side), and the characters' interaction is complicated by racial and political elements.
The movie opens on the morning after what must have been a wild party. Two people are quietly slipping out into the early-morning air -- two people who just had a one-night stand together. At breakfast, they realize they don't even know one another's names. He introduces himself as Micah (Wyatt Cenac), she reluctantly tells him her name is Angela (Tracey Heggins). She doesn't want to tell him much else, and practically runs away as she leaves their shared taxi. But she's left her wallet behind, and Micah discovers her name is really Joanne. He tracks her down, not only to return her wallet but to see and talk to her again, in hopes that she'll be more receptive.
Medicine for Melancholy can get a little strident with its political messages. At one point, Micah and Jo are walking back from the grocery and stand in a doorway listening to a Housing Rights Commission meeting, where a passionate discussion is taking place about rent control and the gentrification of the east side of the city. I know little about San Francisco, but the issues were certainly familiar to Austin residents, and probably with people from other cities. Micah brings up the issue of affordable city housing as well as other issues about race during the film, which is relevant especially because Jo's live-in boyfriend is white.
Most of the film is in black-and-white, desaturated except for spot colors. This could be an annoying distraction, and admittedly there were a couple of times when I noticed, "Oh, we have yellows now! Hey, green!" but for the most part, this spot color is used to subtle effect. You do notice the color palette change, but then you wonder why, and eventually figure out what it means. Whether you're seeing no colors at all or a limited spectrum, the shots of the city are very beautiful -- the city of San Francisco is practically a character itself.
Medicine for Melancholy isn't a plot-driven movie, but its characters are so fascinating to watch that you won't feel you missed anything. The humorous moments are some of the best in the film: I liked Micah's rendition of a song from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and the amusing symmetry of the characters' behavior when each visits the other one's abode. (There's also a surreal but hilarious bit with suspicious characters near a taco stand.) Sometimes I feel like I've seen too many movies about the problems of contemporary twentysomethings and their relationships, but Medicine for Melancholy is deeper, more thoughtful, and more satisfying than many low-budget first features.