Life can often seem absurd. Meaningless, even. The rituals and routines that define our existence can become almost too much to bear, as we ramble on from one day to the next. Whatís the point of it all, we ask ourselves, struggling to make sense of life, the world, and everything. Before directing Manic, the sober new film about life in a juvenile mental hospital, Jordan Melamed wrestled with this existentialist conflict.
"I was in the pit," he recalls of his days as a commodities trader, buying and selling on the crowded floors of Chicagoís cutthroat Stock Exchange. "The animalism of the trading world is remarkably similar to that of the film business. However, itís in your face in the pits, and more hidden in the movie industry."
Currently, Melamed is facing a different type of absurdity. Cooped up in a Seattle hotel room, heís fielding a frantic, nonstop barrage of press questions. Itís the filmmaking equivalent to olí Sisyphus and his eternal rock-pushing routine, but Melamed has chosen to enjoy the redundant rhythms that come with publicizing his movie. His young star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is also along for the ride. "I havenít been in Seattle for five years," the actor announces, glad to be in the stomping grounds once frequented by Nirvana, his favorite band. "I went to Pike Street Market yesterday."
In Manic, Gordon-Levitt plays Lyle, a volatile adolescent whose schoolyard fighting lands him behind the locked fences of Northwoods Mental Institution. While receiving therapy for anger management issues, Lyle joins a sullen stew of troubled teens. Tracey (Zooey Deschanel, the older sister from Almost Famous) is a fair-skinned ghost of a girl tormented by unfriendly nocturnal visions, while Sara (Sara Rivas, Crash) dresses in Goth garb and oozes rebellion. Michael (Eldon Henson, The Mighty) is a doughy, blonde bully who invites violence with each crass insult he hurls, and Chad (Michael Bacall, who also co-wrote Manicís gutsy screenplay) is a melodramatic manic-depressive with an artistís sensitive heart. Meanwhile, thereís tentative, frail Kenny (Cody Lightning), whose near-comatose flatness is borne of an abusive past too horrible to speak of.
This nest of broken kids is nurtured by Dave (Don Cheadle), a Northwoods psychiatrist who facilitates grueling group therapy sessions in an effort to prepare his patients for community living.
And while Dave has a life on the outside, Cheadle plays this pressured mental-health professional as a man with his own boulder to push. Looking into the dead eyes of Northwoodsí young residents, many of whom have endured abuse, neglect, and psychosis, Dave wrestles with his own vision of the worldís absurdity.
"Life is a struggle," Dave asks his group with harsh, point-blank bluntness. "Can you handle it?" Cheadleís shrink poses the question as a dare, challenging his group to grasp at what makes life meaningful and run with it.
The same challenge to find truth and meaning from life is what led Melamed to abandon trading and pick up a camera. Before graduating from the American Film Institute in 1997, Melamed used the school as a vehicle for directing A Corner in Gold. "It tells the story of a commodities trader who is literally trying to corner the gold market," Melamed explains. "He learns the hard way that sometimes itís not possible to follow in a fatherís footsteps, as he is trying to do."
The short film won Melamed a student Emmy at AFI, and it was aired on numerous cable stations before attracting the attention of studio talent scouts. When asked if the tale is autobiographical, the director chuckles. "Well, let me just say this. I think that in making a film, you have to identify very strongly with its characters in order to make it feel alive."
Melamedís fierce connection to characters is what attracted him to Manicís original script, penned by Blayne Weaver and Michael Bacall. A child actor who had appeared in Free Willy, This Boyís Life, and the A-Team television series, Bacallís second screenplay (his first was for the film Bookies) conveyed an emotional truth that resonated with Melamed. After the two talents met in 1998, they immediately noted the storyís parallels with Albert Camusí essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus."
"All of the characters in Manic are trying to decide whether life is just this pointless charade Ė pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it rollback down Ė or is there meaning in it all?"
Manic shuns the high-gloss artificiality of big studio productions, preferring a gritty, jittery vision borne of handheld, digital camerawork. When Cheadle throws questions to his audience of patients, and they rattle back answers, the viewer feels immersed, as if also participating in this intimate psychotherapy group. "With this type of material," explains Melamed, "youíve got to tell the story in a way that is organic. To capture spontaneous performances, itís essential to use small cameras as you would with digital."
To heighten his filmís realism even further, Melamed shot several improvised scenes not originally included in Manicís script, giving its performances an urgent, almost documentary edge that doesnít resemble mannered acting. "In the finished movie," he proudly proclaims, "you canít tell what is improvised and what is scripted. It flows together pretty seamlessly."
Melamed admiringly cites a scene in which Gordon-Levitt sits on a bench with Deschanel. "His character tells a story about his mother, and how he almost hit her. He completely improvised all of it."
Gordon-Levitt, best know for his work on T.V.ís Third Rock from the Sun series as alien Tommy Solomon, deserves kudos for such on-the-spot improvisation. However, heís most effective in Manic when heís not engaged in dialogue. His eyes are steely slits that warn strangers to keep a distance, and his intense masculinity brings to mind a young Russell Crowe. "Why are we supposed to trust you guys when things like this happen?" his character barks at Dave after another youth is victimized within the supposedly safe walls of Northwoods. The world-weary vigilance and distrust reflected in twenty-two-year-old actorís searing eyes are those associated with a much older man, and make Lyle a tragic figure. Heís disillusioned with life even before his post-school existence has begun.
When asked if he studied actual patients to research the role of Lyle, Gordon-Levitt sounds displeased. "I donít like the word studied," he confirms before a brief pause. "It makes it seems as though they are lab rats. The most important thing that came across for me concerning kids like Lyle, was that I could be friends with these guys. They're not some strange, alien breed. These characters are dealing with the same issues of love and hate that any human being does.
"When I spent time with different people that had been in mental hospitals, we never really spoke about the hospital, or about their rage, or childhood. We just hung out like we would if we had met at a party, sitting around smoking cigarettes and talking about music."
In fact, Gordon-Levitt often kept himself at armís length from the psychiatric information filling the charts of such patients. "I did speak with a psychologist, but I tried my best to ignore the clinical point of view. I didnít read up medically on what itís like to be bipolar, or have violent outbursts. My character wouldnít have the benefit of that knowledge."
In addition to its clear-eyed look at mental hospital residents as people first, and patients second, Manic also provides a realistic glimpse at the exhausting, emotionally draining routine of a therapist. During one clever montage, Dave interviews each of his patients from behind a sprawling office desk. As each teen takes a chair in front of his, the psychiatrist asks, "What kind of progress have you made since youíve been here?" The camera cuts between his weary-yet-hopeful face, and the indifferent answers and flat expressions of his charges. We watch Cheadleís shrink fight off frustration, wondering whether any of these lost souls will ever improve.
"Therapists must have tremendous empathy to be good at their jobs," exclaims Melamed, tipping his hat to mental-health professionals. "And just like a filmmaker would, Iíll bet that therapists get some kind of catharsis being in group therapy themselves. Theyíre unheralded. Society only heralds our sports heroes."
While Manic refuses to stereotype its subjects as being nothing more than the sum of their diagnoses ("Just because youíre diagnosed bipolar," confirms Melamed, "doesnít mean you also have anger issues"), its director and star are quick to point out how their own personality quirks parallel many mental-health conditions. "Iíve never had myself psychoanalyzed," says Gordon-Levitt, "but I do know that my mind is often divided into two states. Whatever my focus is on any given day, I can be depressed and nervous about it and not think Iíll be able to handle it, or I can feel wonderfully confident, like Iím gonna do something pro-active about my life, and have a much more positive outlook about things. Each day, I have these turns. I think that everybody does."
"Thatís what Manic is all about," the actor confirms. "Itís not so much about a mental institution, but about the conflicts, struggles, and resolutions that are presented by life. These things are not at all exclusive to a mental institution. Theyíre just human traits."
The struggles that Gordon-Levitt speaks of bring us back to the world of Greek mythology, and Sisyphus. "The movie does imply hope," he confirms, "and it does call to you not to give up and surrender to apathy in the face of all thatís wrong with the world. It shows that one shouldnít lash out with hostility and violence, but rather, try to buckle down and accept the pain of the struggle. Live through it and try to grow.
"Sisyphus pushed a boulder painfully up a mountain, only to watch it fall down. You can curse the world, and kick the boulder, and break your toes. Or, you can rally and sing a song to yourself while youíre walking down the mountain. Manic fits rightly around this idea, that you can surrender and give up to the absurdity, or embrace it and live an engaged life."