Home Video Hovel: Medicine for Melancholy, by Rudie Obias
The Criterion Collection has a history of highlighting the first feature films from notable contemporary directors, such as Christopher Nolan’s Following, Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, Joel & Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple, and many more. There’s just something really special about highlighting a director’s debut to show the same artistic flourishes that occur throughout a body of work. The boutique home video distribution company added another director’s first with Barry Jenkins’ 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy and it’s fantastic.
Jenkins is mostly known as the director of the Academy Award winning Best Picture Moonlight, adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and the upcoming visual effects heavy Mufasa: The Lion King prequel for Disney, but his filmmaking career started with a micro budget feature.
Medicine for Melancholy follows Micah (played by Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (played by Tracey Heggins)—in two standout performances—the morning-after a drunken one-night stand. The pair are strangers sharing an awkward taxi ride back to their respective apartments, when Jo accidentally leaves her wallet behind and Micah tracks her down to give it back to her. Their second meeting continues into a day of conversation and museum outings into late nights of drinking and dancing in a gentrifying San Francisco.
Even for his first film, you can see a lot of the same confidence Jenkins has as a filmmaker—both stylistically and narratively. Stylistically, the film is gray with flourishes of red and yellow, as if both of the lives of ‘20-somethings become more alive when the pair get more intimate with each—physically and emotionally. It’s very, very emo!
Narratively, Medicine for Melancholy feels loose, almost improvised, while Jenkins camera feels like the third person in this limited-time romance. In fact, there’s a scene in the middle of the film that directly points to the looseness of the narrative when the audience eavesdrops on a meeting of San Franciscans discussing the ever-changing city, the pitfalls of late-stage Capitalism, and the scarcity of affordable housing. It adds some texture to the character’s point-of-view, while having the presence of mind of the realities of living in a city with a shrinking middle-class.
The film is also about Blackness in San Francisco—especially when you’re in the indie alternative scene. Being an outsider of the outsiders. There’s a moment when Micah defines himself as Black, while Jo disagrees and defines him as Micah, which sets up a later scene when she questions why he’s even with her. Defining Blackness is not just black and white, but in Medicine for Melancholy, it’s a little bit more nuanced with two viewpoints coming together—it strengthens.
As for the disc itself, the Criterion Collection curated some insight to the film and filmmaking with new interviews with Wyatt Cenac and editor Nat Sanders, two commentary track (one from the original 2008 home video release and a new one with Jenkins), test footage, a blooper reel, and an essay writer and critic Danielle Amir Jackson. The bonus materials really rounds out how Medicine for Melancholy fits with today’s Black filmmaking landscape, as well as a snapshot at the lo-fi “mumblecore” film scene of the late 2000s.
Medicine for Melancholy also shows how foreign films from Jean-Luc Godard and Wong Kar-Wai and indie movies from Richard Linklater have really influenced Jenkins’ style in later films. It’s clear after watching the movie that Jenkins is a strong filmmaker with a clear and unique voice.