It's amazing what a little splash of color can do. All things being equal, any reasonable moviegoer might be inclined to bolt from Barry Jenkins' debut feature Medicine For Melancholy after the first 20 minutes, which largely consist of San Francisco hipsters Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins trying and failing to make conversation with each other following a drunken one-night stand. But there's something attractive about the look of the film, with its sepia tones giving way to occasional glimmers of red, blue, and yellow. And there's something about the look of the two leads, too. Cenac and Heggins are black, which is such a rarity in no-budget American independent cinema that audience members may be hesitant to make any sudden moves, lest they frighten the characters away.
Once Cenac and Heggins get past the fumbly naturalistic bits and start actually talking (and going places), Medicine For Melancholy becomes a thoughtful, often poignant study of modern urban life and race. As the two visit a museum of African-American culture, dance at an indie-rock club, and chat casually about what they've seen as minorities—within San Francisco bohemia as well as the larger black community—they come to realize how nice it is to meet someone who shares their instant shorthand.
Long stretches of Medicine For Melancholy are way too sparse, and aside from some interludes about gentrification, the movie doesn't feature enough of people speaking directly about what's important to them. The two leads—and the engaging actors who play them—don't get to reveal themselves as fully as they should. Nonetheless, Medicine For Melancholy offers a personal spin on the "walking around a city" genre, and it's one of the few such films where the cultural signifiers—like the prospective couple getting to know each other by checking out each other's MySpace pages—don't just feel like Amerindie clichés. There's something at stake here: Cenac is certain that if he lets Heggins go, he'll have lost his chance to grow old and raise kids alongside someone who shares his values and heritage. And as another night fades into another uncertain day, the audience too may feel something all-too-uncommon slipping away.