Class and Cinema in the City

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Dennis Lim reviews Medicine For Melancholy.

“MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY,” an independent feature by the first-time writer-director Barry Jenkins, opens the morning after a one-night stand. Micah and Jo, who don’t yet know each other’s names, are young and black, and for want of a more descriptive term you might call them hipsters. In San Francisco, where the African-American population is less than 7 percent and where “black indie kids” (to use Mr. Jenkins’s term) are scarce, that gives their hookup added significance — at least for Micah. As he puts it to Jo, “You ever realize just how few of us there really are?”

For Mr. Jenkins, who is African-American, the question resounds within the context not just of Bay Area indie culture but also of American indie filmmaking, which is not exactly a bastion of diversity.

Like so many movies about 20-something urbanites, “Medicine for Melancholy,” which had its premiere at South by Southwest last year and opens in New York on Friday, concerns the search for self-definition. But it stands apart for its forthright attention to the push-pull of inclusion and exclusion that comes with being a minority member of a subculture.

Mr. Jenkins, 29, drew on his own experience as a recent transplant to San Francisco. Born and raised in Miami, he studied filmmaking at Florida State University, then worked at Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions in Los Angeles. But he grew disillusioned with the industry, and he quit his job to travel the country. He met a woman from San Francisco and moved there to be with her. The end of that relationship, and the period of introspection that followed, led him to make “Medicine for Melancholy” (which is up for three Spirit Awards this year, including best first feature).

“As a person of color from the South, San Francisco was the first city that really made me feel like an other,” Mr. Jenkins said over breakfast in Brooklyn recently. Because he was in an interracial romance when he got there, he added, “I was almost buffered.”

“When that relationship was off,” he said, “it was like I was seeing the city for the first time.”

“Medicine for Melancholy” follows Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) for a 24-hour period as they feel out each other’s quirks and hang-ups. Mr. Jenkins credits “Friday Night,” the 2002 French film about a brief encounter by one of his favorite directors, Claire Denis, as an inspiration. As a literal date movie, trained on an attractive couple playing out a talky mating ritual as they wander a photogenic city, “Medicine” also recalls Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.”

The characters keep circling back to questions of race and assimilation, but the film is less an identity-politics polemic than a credible portrait of a young man wrestling with those issues — a situation Mr. Jenkins found himself in not long ago.

He acknowledged that it was odd to experience a racial epiphany in, of all places, liberal San Francisco. But this is also a city where the African-American population is proportionally less than half of what it was in 1970 (the most visible emblem of the black exodus being the razing and redevelopment of the Fillmore district).

Mr. Jenkins’s ambivalence about San Francisco comes across in his film’s visual pallet . The digital-video images, so desaturated they border on monochromatic, have a romantic softness, and San Francisco looks even lovelier than it tends to in more expensive movies. But Mr. Jenkins also liked the idea of “reflecting the theme of a city with the color taken out.”

In making a film so attuned to its physical and psychic environment, Mr. Jenkins joins the ranks of regionalist indie directors whose movies are anchored in a powerful sense of place. “Medicine for Melancholy” does for San Francisco what Kelly Reichardt has done for the rural Pacific Northwest (in “Old Joy”), Lance Hammer for the Mississippi Delta (“Ballast”), Robinson Devor for the Seattle area (“Police Beat”) and Ramin Bahrani for the unseen pockets of New York City (“Chop Shop”).

“It’s absolutely rooted in its milieu, but it’s by no means a parochial film,” said Graham Leggat, the executive director of the San Francisco Film Society. Referring to Mr. Jenkins’s somewhat critical portrait of the city, he said: “It’s not a problematic film for San Francisco. It’s a film made in the spirit of how the city would like to think of itself, as a progressive place where people are fairly oppositional.”

Mr. Leggat noted that while the Bay Area has long been home to a robust enclave of documentary and experimental filmmakers, “there’s not really a vigorous narrative-filmmaking middle class.” The film society has expanded its activities to include production assistance and is committing funds to spur the growth of local filmmaking. But for now, Mr. Leggat said, “there’s not a critical mass of folks who can make a livelihood just working in the business.”

Mr. Jenkins can attest to that. He saves on rent by living with the parents of his cinematographer, James Laxton, an old friend. Through the production of the film he worked as a shipment supervisor at Banana Republic. He made “Medicine” with a bare-bones crew, on a budget that is, even by D.I.Y. standards, small change. (His official answer when people press him for numbers: “Probably less than the cost of your car.”)

Mr. Jenkins wrote the film nearly two years ago — “before Obamania took off,” he said — and race has since moved to the forefront of the national conversation. But instead of toying with vague notions of a “postracial” America, “Medicine” wonders what it would mean to look beyond race, when race still looms large in matters of cultural identity and social justice.

“Micah comes across as pro-black, and Jo’s is more of a post-race point of view,” Mr. Jenkins said. “When I started the film I was teetering between these two viewpoints. It’s like I was splitting my personality in two.”

Making the movie has helped clarify his thinking. “For me the film ended up being even more about class than race,” he said. “Micah talks about the city pushing black people out, but it’s really about pushing poor people out.” With a wry smile, he added: “I used to be obsessed with race. I’m more obsessed with class now.”

The film plays NWFF February 20-26.

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