med_for_melancholy.jpgIs Barry Jenkins‘ “Medicine for Melancholy” the first African-American “Mumblecore” movie? Hell yeah!

And, uh, maybe not.

Jenkins’ engaging and entertaining low-budget love story certainly fits many of Mumblecore’s thematic ideas, and premiered at SXSW, the cauldron that supposedly brewed the movement. The film takes place over the course of one dreamy day, from the time when a man and a woman wake up next to each other in a strange bed, hungover in the hazy dawn after a party, through the waxing and waning stages of a burgeoning relationship, and into the second night of their one night stand. As with most of the affirmed Mumblecore canon, the characters are most comfortable flirtatiously talking about themselves and their relationships, about indie art and pop culture, but the greater issues of social anxiety and political awareness occasionally intercede in a way that is natural and revealing.

Tracey Heggins plays the guilt-ridden woman, and she perfectly offsets her inscrutable and somewhat stand-offish attitude with just enough charm and savvy to justify Wyatt Cenac‘s dogged pursuit of her. Cenac, a stand-up comic in his first acting role, is a screen natural with a uncanny ability to captivate with a mix of clever wit, shy deflections and downright adorable gestures. In one delightful scene that stands as a microcosmic representation of the entire film, Cenac insinuates his way into her apartment and beguiles her into letting him stay a bit. I won’t bother to describe the details of the scene, because the intangibles which the two characters express far outweigh the basic narrative, but the conversation sparkles along, touching on joblessness, rent, fidelity, desire, guilt, race, perception, showers, and stolen art, finally concluding in a Mr. Rogers song and the creation of doodle masterwork sketched in Sharpie and laden with racial overtones. You’re in love with these characters by the end of this scene, and ready to ride through the day with them empathizing with everything they feel.

In addition to highlighting Jenkins’ ability to craft believable and meaningful dialogue and shape realistic and engaging characters, the sequence also demonstrates his subtle cinematic skill. When Heggins goes to take a shower, Cenac meanders through her apartment, snooping here and there. Opening one door, the sound of the shower suddenly becomes ever so slightly louder, and there’s a breathless and exciting moment of anticipation when we wonder along with him if he should go in with her. I won’t even tell you what his decision is, but it’s telling.

Unlike many Mumblecore films, Jenkins has shot the film with an obvious “look,” with most of the color desaturated. It’s a foggy look which is not only a resonant depiction of San Francisco, but also evokes the hazy, hungover, timeless feeling of their Sunday afternoon extended one-night stand. Jenkins mentioned in the Q & A that Karina Longworth of Spout had even conjectured that the film is 93% desaturated to reflect the racial makeup of the city, which is explicitly mentioned in the dialogue. Although Jenkins denied that this was explicitly the case, he liked the idea, and the way visual tropes and simple dialogue evoke the deeper political themes of race, class, and gentrification is another exceptional aspect of “Medicine for Melancholy.”

In theme and attitude, the film fits the Mumblecore moniker, though it’s clearly not a “Mumblecorps” movie, because it doesn’t star any of the Swanberg/Gerwig coterie. But I think it’s interesting and important to attempt to decipher if this is a Mumblecore film. One of the criticisms of the movement is that it’s dominated by apolitical white males; so, first of all, by calling “Melancholy” Mumblecore, I think you expand the genre for the better, moving it forward and keeping it relevant. The point of defining such genres is to give viewers a context with which to interpret and evaluate films, and by defining the work by content instead of cast, you encourage the audience to weigh the emotional and intellectual evocations against other similar films. Some might say that categories are limiting, but I think they provide context and inspire dialogue.

Barry Jenkins may not have been inspired by or aspiring to Mumblecore, but “Medicine for Melancholy” has successfully embraced the best of the movement, and he’s made a wonderful independent film which anyone should love.