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Oh, for the good old movie days when a couple's first kiss came at the end and signaled life lived happily after. As "Medicine for Melancholy" illustrates, romance in the 21st century rides a much rougher road. The Martha's Vineyard Film Society will screen this Indie film Saturday, November 7, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins gives us an often charming, always authentic-feeling look at how would-be couples relate, when they are black, 20-something and live in San Francisco. The rules in mumblecore (movies about modern, 20-something life and relationships) romance have turned traditional courting upside down.
The viewer meets Micah first. He's brushing his teeth with his finger, and you know what that means. Next we see Angela waking up, and she does the same. Our suspicion is confirmed that neither is at home when their friend comes out a door as they head downstairs and invites them to stay longer. It's been a long night embellished with mind-altering substances.
Angela is ready to walk off without even speaking to Micah. A truce is declared long enough for them to have breakfast together and share a cab home. But wait a minute. Angela's real name is Jo, as Micah discovers when she leaves her wallet behind in the cab.
With more than a little effort, he tracks her down and goes to visit her. While she lets him into her apartment and even takes a shower while he's there, she's still pretty frosty. Very slowly Micah and Jo start to learn a little about each other. Jo has a boyfriend who's away in London, while Micah is coming off a relationship that broke his heart.
One of the hallmarks of mumblecore movies is that conversations tend to meander around the block before anyone gets to the point. In the best cases, the ensuing dialogue is charming and often funny. In the worse cases, the audience falls asleep or walks out before anything seems to happen.
The conversations in "Medicine for Melancholy" mostly interest and amuse, because Micah and Jo turn out to be fun to learn about. Micah has a well-developed sense of identity as a black man who doesn't think much of how his race is treated, even in trendy San Francisco. He can be articulate about race and San Francisco. Jo intrigues us because she downplays race, and because she is so unwilling to open up to sweet-natured Micah.
While she keeps up her defenses longer than most women pursued by such a charmer, her actions start to speak louder than her façade. The two spend the day together, visiting museums, riding their bikes, eating, dancing and even making love in Micah's cramped apartment.
Director Jenkins pays loving tribute to San Francisco, making this very much a movie about urban life. At least in my screening copy, film color was so minimal as to be non-existent. Then a red or yellow tee-shirt would turn up, offering evidence that, indeed, "Medicine for Melancholy" was not meant to be entirely in black and white.
The pleasures of this slender film are simple ones: the way it captures the awkward interplay of a new relationship, the honesty with which it renders quotidian life and the time it is willing to take depicting small pleasures.
"Medicine for Melancholy," Saturday, November 7, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8 ($5 for MV Film Society members). Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, go to mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards reviews films, books, and art for The Times.