A kind of gentrification romance, Medicine For Melancholy is a simultaneously emotional and sociological race-conscious outsider journey through a stormy stranger sex relationship that might be described as an extended one day stand playing out in San Francisco. And since African American writer/director Barry Jenkins is exploring way beyond the conventional social isolation of sexual relationships on screen, this uncharted territory is fraught with as much uncertainty as the anxiety-ridden twentysomething couple in question, but honest and determined in its bumpy cinematic ride.
Wyatt Cenac is Micah, a young itinerant aquarium designer who finds himself waking up one morning in a strange house, after a night of partying and drunken sex with the equally stunned Joanne (Tracey Heggins) lying next to him. After excruciatingly awkward exchanges between the two African Americans, as is typically the case with fast forward lovers who grope for words after experiencing physical intimacy without knowing a thing about each other, Joanne flees with obvious relief from a taxi they share on their respective rides home.
But Micah is hopelessly smitten with the mysterious heartbreaker, and after discovering her wallet left behind in the cab, he tracks her down. Micah also feels quite fortunate to have found a potential girlfriend who is likewise African American, in a city where few remain after a pattern of unrelenting urban removal. But unlike Micah who has embraced deeper race consciousness as a defense against this troubling social reality, Joanne has found shelter in a relationship with a rich white boyfriend who happens to be abroad at the moment. And she’s not about to give up that needy sense of security for a perhaps more passionate but uncertain future with a black man.
Medicine For Melancholy addresses an array of serious themes and dilemmas that confront young people of color today, especially relevant in light of the contradictions of the Obama phenomenon. That is, have African Americans truly ‘arrived’ because of the Obama presidency, when so many blacks remain disproportionately trapped in conditions of poverty and continued unofficial segregation. And where is that perplexing middle ground, between achieving equality and recognition as just a human being, and the need to still assert black identity in the face of lingering, somewhat more covert discrimination and alienation.
Medicine For Melancholy is commendable for its sensitivity and candor in conveying these timely concepts, through the tempestuous journey of this love affair as well as the broader social framework. But with far too much on its plate, however earnest, the movie skims rather than delves into its pressing themes.
2 1/2 stars