Lyle Jensen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "10 Things I Hate About You) is full of a rage that has caused him to almost beat a schoolmate to death with a baseball bat during a game. His tearful mother ignores his screams as he's handed into the authority of Dr. David Monroe (Don Cheadle, "Ocean's Eleven") of Northwood Mental Institution where he will be treated with a group of equally troubled teens in the 2001 Sundance festival entry "Manic."
Tyro director Jordan Melamed gets natural and perceptive work from a cast comprised of amateurs and professionals. They mine their own truths improvising their way around actors Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver's script despite some genre cliches. However, cinematographer Nick Hay's ugly digital video visuals drag the production down several notches.
Lyle has an immediate group run-in with the equally combative Michael (Elden Hensen, "O"), a big kid who enjoys fighting and just wants to hang with his 'homeboys.' We're also introduced to Sara (Sara Rivas, "She's All That") a friendless goth who surprised her mother by hitting back, zoned out Tracy (Zooey Deschanel, "All the Real Girls"), Lyle's younger, fragile roommate Kenny (Cody Lightning, "Smoke Signals") and the seemingly normal, very socialized Chad (cowriter Michael Bacall, "Urban Legends: Final Cut) among others.
Lyle becomes friendly with Chad and almost a father figure to Kenny. When the source of Lyle's rage comes out during a group session, Tracy responds, and a tentative romance begins. Sara is the group's earth mother figure, Kenny its martyr and Michael Lyle's constant provocation for backsliding. Dr. Monroe is a caring therapist who sometimes makes mistakes.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt leaves "Third Rock from the Sun" far behind with this mature dramatic performance. He's a walking example of violence breeding violence, yet Gordon-Levitt is able to express both hardened fury and a capacity for tenderness. Bacall is equally good, a social ringleader who announces Lyle's accomplishments like a boxing promoter - as long as he feels safe within his own element. Bacall subtly lets the audience see the fear and remoteness begin to build in Chad's eyes when Lyle doesn't recognize his
opportunistic dreams of freedom represent something else to Chad. Young Cody Lightning projects a shattered spirit, barely held together by a protective environment and father's talisman. He offers one, carefully placed, radiant smile, that gives us a glimpse of the kid that might have been. Hensen's OK as a character who doesn't seem to have a problem outside of basic bullying.
Sara Rivas is very strong as the young woman who refused to run with the flock and became an outcast, but surprisingly the better known Deschanel creates the most opaque character. Deschanel's case of low self-esteem brought about by parental haranguing would seem more likely to result in the cutting behavior seen in others rather than the shrieking night terrors she exhibits. Her clear, penetrating blue eyes, however, reflect Lyle's moral conscience back at him. As the adult authority figure, Cheadle is terrific, a flawed human (although his attempt to quit smoking is an obvious device) who doubts his value as he faces slow progress and depressing odds. Cheadle dispenses patience, humor and even anger at just the right moments and creates a palpably empathic bond with the troubled kids under his care.
While the content seems the stuff of real life, it's corralled within some genre cliches. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is evoked by the casting of the protagonist's roommate as a quiet American Indian, scenes of enforced medication and symbolic references to freedom and lack thereof. Still, no moments are as forced as some of the overplayed histrionics of "Girl, Interrupted." Hays over utilizes shaky, handheld
camera techniques, perhaps to give an 'arty' feel, but it seems like a ploy to distract from the ugliness of his steady shots' framing. Even worse, when the drama heats up, Hays's whipping camera distracts from the action.
"Manic" doesn't offer any answers, but it is refreshing to see a film about abused teens suggest that no matter how much of a struggle life can be, one still needs to take responsibility for one's own problems or risk losing control of one's freedom. Lyle's realization of the validity of Monroe's words give the film satisfying closure.
Robin did not see this film.
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