Manic Movie Review

When troubled teen Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes postal, gets put in restraints, and is commited by his mother to a juvenile mental facility, we get sent there, as well. Suddenly, we're in institutional surroundings much like that in Girl, Interrupted -- only we stay there. We don't get to escape and have an adventure on the outside. What's worse, we're subjected to digital video camera work that is tortuous enough to bring out whatever manic manifestation there might be lurking on the edge of our frontal lobe. It's cinema verité and as subjective as a camera can be.

The backstory on Lyle is that he attacked a kid with a baseball bat. Yes, the guy taunted him during a baseball game, and Lyle has had his share of troubles at home -- all of which is going to come out in therapy -- but that's why he's considered enough of a menace to society and to himself to make him a candidate for Northward Mental Institution, a spa for undisciplined youths run by therapist-in-charge Dr. David Monroe (Don Cheadle). Totally tight-lipped at first, Lyle commands attention by the sheer unpredictability of how and when his fast fuse of rage will ignite into violence.

He's not the problem, the world is. And that mind set is not quickly or easily melted away by group interaction. But, slowly, as he tests the mental landscape of those around him: his shy, repressed roommate Kenny (Cody Lightning of Smoke Signals), the dysfunctional bully Michael (Eden Henson), the over-painted lady, the sweet, soulful-eyed rape victim Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), and the rest of the gang, he responds and becomes a part of it.

But the thing about this picture is the concept and style of its making. Intimate, wide angle, hand-held camerawork is as much a sign of low budgets as it is of directorial ego-driven inspiration. Here, first-time director Jordan Melamed uses his lens as an in-your-face player pushing into the melee as Lyle and fellow inmates act out. The level of destruction increases with the proximity of the camera, combining immediacy with jumpiness and wild framing, creating a dynamic all its own. Is it a good storytelling device, heightening the manic brain activity of the participants? Some filmgoers will think so; some are likely to be put off by its intrusiveness. In more narrative scenes, the actors perform in real time (no cuts) as the camera pursues angles, documentary style.

Be that as it may, the movie works only to the extent you get involved with each kid's efforts or inability to adjust to the traumas of his past. Some of their stories beg for more understanding, but ultimately most add up enough to produce an involving connection. The sense of spontaneity and welcome moments of humor contribute positively.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is finely absorbed and convincing in his acute portrayal of pent-up rebellion, a young actor worth watching. The standout is Don Cheadle as the all-too-human counselor who takes his own weaknesses into account when guiding his disturbed charges. More often than not, Cheadle brings a snide humor to his roles (Ocean's Eleven) but here suppresses it to great effect. Not reaching for the gag or the cliché concentrates him on using his own admirable humanity as he reaches for the insight that might affect a life.

Discounting a new director's attempts at symbolism and over-energetic enthusiasm, the honesty behind the material and the script's refusal to pander or compromise makes Manic painfully attractive to youth everywhere who have a bone to pick with their elders. It's a film with intrinsic relevance in their world.

Try Prozac!


Manic Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 2003


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