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'Medicine for Melancholy'

Barry Jenkins' film, starring Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac, studies clashes and tenuous connections against the backdrop of a changing city.


The bed is strange, the bedfellow a stranger and just what happened before morning nudged those sleeping shoulders awake is lost in the tangle of sheets that was last night.

This is how writer-director Barry Jenkins pulls us into his introspective first feature, "Medicine for Melancholy," giving us no clue in those initial moments just how complex its themes will be, packaged as they are in this tiniest sliver of a film.

Its two quiet characters shrug off sleep but not quite each other. Over a cup of morning-after coffee, they finally trade names and begin a series of uneasy efforts to unknot the mystery of each other.

Jo', played with a seductive diffidence by actress-model Tracey Heggins, is lean and long, her hair shorn tight against her head but for the bangs that sweep across her face; everything expresses an elegant economy. Where Jo' is naturally cool, Micah is in search of his -- which stand-up and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" writer and occasional on-air drop-in Wyatt Cenac telegraphs effortlessly, his body and his patter bobbing and weaving around Jo' as Micah figures out how close he can get.

Jenkins has set the film in San Francisco, which turns out to be pivotal in the unfolding story of the couple: young African Americans in a city where the black population is rapidly shrinking, with gentrification accelerating the pace. Micah and Jo' are struggling with gentrification of a more personal sort, their identities, relationships, professions and politics all grappling with upward mobility. They soon find themselves on opposite sides of a very personal racial divide.

Ideologically they pull and push against each other as they walk, bike and taxi around the city, and this is where much of the movie exists, on street level. When Jo' suggests they go to the Museum of Modern Art, Micah insists on the Museum of the African Diaspora. And when Micah describes his most essential self as black, before man or anything else, Jo' pleads for all the talking to stop, and soon they are back in bed where need, more than desire, overtakes everything else.

Jenkins leaches most of the color out of this lovely postcard of a film, leaving the washed-out yellows and reds of their T-shirts for contrast, as if he wants to ensure we keep our focus where it belongs. Still, the city is beautiful as it stretches out before us, and the director is liberal in letting Micah and Jo' play their way across it.

The film has a scavenger hunt sensibility about it, leaving you to make discoveries here and there. One comes when Jo' runs away in a tease, only to stumble upon an empty merry-go-round where first she, then Micah, climb on the stately wooden horses and go round and round and up and down, which is exactly where all of their conversations go as well.

The narrative, at times, veers into overstatement, but for the most part we're allowed to eavesdrop on their self-examination guilt-free. There are occasional missteps in Jenkins' grand first effort -- a moment when the city so wonderfully wrapped in earthy tones briefly turns into a Technicolor reality is unnecessary -- but they are minor inconveniences as "Medicine for Melancholy" reminds that much is possible with little.



Medicine for Melancholy'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Playing: In limited release, Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; a director and actors Q&A follows the 7:40 p.m. showings Friday and Saturday. Available on demand at

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