- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

“Manic” languished for two years in low-budget limbo after garnering early praise at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why.

First-time director Jordan Melamed wants not only to present a raw portrait of a group of young mental patients, but to whack us over the head with it. There’s no happy resolution, only a hard-nosed recognition that one is never cured of, and must continually struggle with, mental illness.

For his wayward adolescent subjects, that means a lifetime.

“Manic,” as jumpy and jittery as the hand-held digital video camera with which it was shot — a minimalist technique that isn’t quite as arty as Mr. Melamed supposes — stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (from the TV show “Third Rock From the Sun,” on terra incognita in this strictly noncomical psychodrama) as 17-year-old Lyle, a laconic, scrawny kid with smoldering eyes who’s always on the edge of eruptive violence.

In the film’s opening scene, Lyle is being treated for minor cuts and bruises, which soon are revealed to be the byproduct of his sadistically beating another teen on a baseball field.

“Tell them I’m not crazy,” Lyle begs his mother, his panic intensifying as men in white approach with a sedative-laced syringe, cautiously at first, before their subject flies into another uncontrollable rage.

Next we’re shuttled into the unwelcoming confines of the Northwood Mental Institution, an out-of-the-way facility in rural California with a wing for juveniles who might have a chance at turning their lives around.

Every so often, Mr. Melamed pointedly cuts to a couple of the facility’s too-far-gone crazies, a sly indication of the future that awaits some, maybe most, of the younger patients.

The troubled teens include Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), a likable introvert tormented by nightmares; Kenny (Cody Lightning), Lyle’s impossibly shy roommate; Chad (portrayed by the film’s co-writer, Michael Bacall), a suicidal rich kid with a taste for French existentialist literature; Sara (Sara Rivas), a free-spirited girl with a penchant for painting; and Michael (Elden Henson), a smack-talking bully who quickly establishes himself as Lyle’s resident rival.

All have their moments of normality, but each has a seemingly unconquerable problem: if not rage, then acute social paralysis resulting from sexual abuse, drug addiction or bipolarity.

At the center of this mostly superb cast of young players is Don Cheadle, a clever character actor who, thanks to successive acting jobs with director Steven Soderbergh, has become one of the industry’s most consistently impressive yet little-known “who’s-that-guy?” commodities.

He plays the institution’s head psychiatrist, Dr. David Monroe, who has a troubled past of his own. Monroe, the moral center of the movie, leads group therapy sessions that provoke confrontations more often than shared insights. He promises his patients no silver bullets and frankly informs Lyle that he may be forced to live with his rage for the rest of his life.

How strange, and sadly refreshing, to hear such realism in this age of overmedicated youngsters. As Mr. Melamed sees it, even the ones with real illnesses are beyond the ameliorative reach of drugs.

Obviously, “Manic” is a lot more than just a cuckoo version of “The Breakfast Club”: There’s no trace here of the John Hughes-penned characters’ whimsical ‘80s anxieties. This pack of brats is way beyond Saturday detention and isn’t nearly as much fun to watch.

Pay close attention to a barely literate conversation (there are many faithful re-creations of teenage inarticulateness in “Manic” ) between Lyle and Chad as they pine for the excitement of Rage Against the Machine, an aggro-metal band that during the past 10 years has provided a thrashing soundtrack to the lives of teens affecting a put-upon, outsider pose.

Then watch them throw themselves at walls, and each other, as Rage blares over a boombox. Watch that and ponder whether popular culture doesn’t profoundly affect impressionable and vulnerable children’s psyches.

What’s most disturbing about this scene is that it’s virtually the only moment in which the male patients seem well-adjusted and happy — when they’re play-acting violence.

The real thing follows, with a grisly altercation between death-wishing Chad and a hospital orderly. Lyle, too, submits to his barely contained rage in a clash with Michael in which Mr. Gordon-Levitt brilliantly conveys the sick emotional release his character experiences through violence.

No heroes here, folks. Just real life represented about as authentically as a movie could possibly manage.


TITLE: “Manic”

RATING: R (Violence; sexuality; profanity; references to drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Jordan Melamed. Produced by Trudi Callon and Kirk Hassig. Written by Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver. Photography directed by Nick Hay.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes.


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