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New Classics: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Medicine for Melancholy’

New Classics: Barry Jenkins' 'Medicine for Melancholy'

Criticwire’s New Classic series examines films released in the last ten years that are posed to stand the test of time.

“Medicine for Melancholy”
Dir: Barry Jenkins
Criticwire Average: —

One thing that has been casually forgotten about Richard Linklater’s stunning romantic drama “Before Sunrise” in the twenty years since it has become the modern touchstone of the “couple walking around a city and falling in love” genre is its fantastical conceit. It requires the audience to make a huge dramatic leap of faith, accepting that Julie Delpy’s character would just get off the train she’s on to bum around Vienna with Ethan Hawke. This is far from a bad thing (in fact “Before Sunrise” basically calls attention to this with a scene where Hawke baldly asks Delpy and the audience to take the leap with him), but it illustrates how the premise is built upon a prescribed “magical” quality, a reminder that these kind of encounters exist more frequently in fiction than reality.

Barry Jenkins’ debut feature “Medicine for Melancholy” attempts to correct this by removing the romance from its meet-cute, rendering it downright ordinary and even unpleasant, in order to highlight the broader cultural issues at play. Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) wake up in an unfamiliar bed together the morning after a party. Hungover and embarrassed, Jo agrees to go get coffee with Micah, but gives him a fake name and avoids conversation. When she abruptly leaves without her wallet after they share a cab together, Micah tracks Jo down to return it and they eventually spend the day together. This may be standard indie fare on paper, but Jenkins brings a unique, specific perspective to the premise by imbuing it with sociocultural anxiety. It’s not just that Micah and Jo are black and living in a predominantly white city, it’s that they spend their entire day together maneuvering the murky waters of identity politics while also slowly, briefly falling for each other. Mundane scenes of the two hanging out together are charged simply because they are subconsciously playacting being a “black couple,” with all the cultural weight that comes with that label.

Yet “Medicine for Melancholy” never tries to reduce complicated issues so that they’re easily digestible, nor is it in the business of offering solutions; it’s just about living as a perpetual outsider even when you’re part of a “scene.” Micah struggles with his racial identity, confused and frustrated about having to navigate being a black man aware of his city’s social history amongst people who are indifferent to it. On the other hand, Jo feels more or less comfortable in her own skin, relatively unconcerned about how society views her, partially because she lives with her wealthy, white curator boyfriend. Micah constantly challenges her dispassionate attitude towards race, balking at her interracial relationship and her refusal to label her identity, but Jo has no interest in constantly validating Micah’s concerns, no matter how legitimate they are. It’s a fascinating and all too familiar dynamic between people of color, with one trying to hold on to essential qualities of their history and the other just trying to live their life the best they can.

Though Jenkins embraces Micah’s anger formally — James Laxton’s desaturated digital photography, which reduces the diverse beauty of San Francisco to a gray urban landscape; the lengthy digression in which Micah and Jo visit the Museum of the African Diaspora (“I didn’t even know it was there,” Jo says on their way out); the brief interlude in which Micah and Jo look in on housing activists discussing gentrification — he never paints his self-questioning as the whole truth and depicts the limitations of his confrontational approach. Micah condescends to Jo’s choice to be with a white man even though he’s reeling from the breakup of his own interracial relationship. Jo checks his outrage more than a few times, such as when she informs him that Black History Month is in February not because it’s the shortest month of the year but because Carter G. Woodson wanted Negro History Week to coincide with the births of Frederic Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. When Micah asks Jo to define herself in one word, Jo rejects the idea that identity can be reduced to one thing. It’s not that Jenkins wants his audience to see Micah as a smug instigator, but instead that he’s young and asking himself difficult questions, struggling to hold onto what’s “important” despite still figuring out what that means.

It’s interesting to watch “Medicine for Melancholy” eight years after its theatrical release because its core issues are arguably more timely now than ever in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, and as America slowly learns that a black president never guaranteed a post-racial society. Yet it’s also interesting to view it as a time capsule of the mid-00’s indie scene, in which young, hip urbanites danced to sensitive rock music while too easily ignoring the whiteness of it all. Micah frames much of his questioning in terms of that scene, saying how anytime he goes to a concert, he notices there’s one minority for every 300 white people, and how anything that’s described as indie is “not black,” save for TV on the Radio. Speaking as someone who was frequently the one minority at indie shows in high school, Micah’s point is startlingly accurate and necessary, especially for its time. But even now when that scene has largely evaporated, it’s a point worth making simply because the demographics haven’t changed, no matter how aware young white rockers are of their own race.

Still a debut feature, “Medicine for Melancholy” is far from perfect and contains a handful of noticeable flaws. The film’s pacing is a little slack, especially in the beginning, and the ending still reads like a shrug, even though the narrative is built upon the transient nature of Micah and Jo’s relationship (there is no indication that they will ever see each other again after the events of the film, unlike Jesse and Celine in the “Before” trilogy). Cenac and Heggins shine in the moments when they’re openly challenging each other, but sometimes their chemistry feels a little forced by the demands of the story. But it’s Jenkins’ ambition that makes “Medicine for Melancholy” stand apart from other laid-back indie films. It’s a movies made up of silences and bursts of dialogue, in which quiet, beautiful moments of Micah and Jo biking around the city or getting high are interrupted by racial discourse. Awkward and earnest in equal measure, not unlike the beginnings of a new relationship or uncomfortable discussions about identity, “Medicine for Melancholy” injects cultural history into the stakes of a potential relationship, and openly wonders what it means to be different and pretending to be the same.

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