Manic
review by Elias Savada, 16 May 2003

Manic, the first feature from director Jordan Melamed, pertains to be a candid emulation of mental illness among today's high school crowd. This "truthful" docudrama, captured through the agitated lens of director of photography Nick Hay, is an often frantic study in digital video-camerawork as mounted on an earthquake fault. This aggressive visual styling offers the audience a silent observer, as a crazed fly-on-the-wall. All the better to envelop the viewer in this claustrophobic, emotional roller coaster the rides along the virtual rails in a juvenile mental institution. The camera's  subjective approach closely resembles, and reflects, the character of David Monroe, a staff psychologist who desperately wants to break through the mixed-up minds under his surveillance. As played by Don Cheadle, the character can be just a fragile as his patients, bearing up just so much under the barrage of physical and mental abuse the boys and girls shovel on one another.

Melamed's cinematic vision of the story by debuting screenwriters Michael Bacall (who also has a featured role) and Blayne Weaver is strictly a straight-forward, in-your-face variety. It imitates the Danish-born Dogme style (hand-held camera, no artificial sound flavorings, no post-production), without being chained to that dictum. The cast is shot mostly in close up or medium shots, with the camera movement offering its own manic interpretation of their ongoing group therapy. There are moments of inter-cutting to fill in some back story, but aside from one out-of-the box edit -- where Doctor Dave sits opposite himself during a probation Q+A, admitting to an exasperating self-frustration with himself -- Melamed relies on his young ensemble to carry the film's weight, emotionally textured by the washed-out color scheme. There's not a blue sky in sight.

Manic relates the stories of a half dozen teenagers who find themselves incarcerated under Dr. Monroe's care, all seeking counsel for a collection of mental anxieties. The bookend character that begins and ends the film is Lyle Jansen, a rage-filled seventeen-year-old who took the fun out of a baseball game when he pummeled a player on the other team, requiring a bat-size dose of anger management in exchange for the fifty-two stitches and broken jaw he inflicted. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, quite a stone's throw off his multi-year stint on television's Third Rock from the Sun, puts on a stoic, stone-faced block of anger as a self- and other destructive man-child, anxious for help, but a too-easy target for the brutish prodding of Michael (Elden Henson), the quintessential bully. Lyle's roommate Kenny (Cody Lightning) is an introverted thirteen-year-old who obviously has painful family issues (wandering hands landed him in his current home) that his caretaker has not properly diagnosed. His only companion before slightly opening up to Lyle is his closely-gripped Native American medicine pouch, a Macguffin that proves, temporarily, more potent for Lyle. Chad (Michael Bacall), a bipolar, shaggy-haired, (possibly) rich kid, rounds out the men's side.

In the ladies' corner are Sara (Sara Rivas), armored in abusive black makeup, but hoping for some cleansing (spiritual and, hopefully, epidermal) and freedom, and Tracey, a silent, fragile beauty wounded by rape and poignantly sketched by Zooey Deschanel (All the Real Girls), daughter of noted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who has obviously had a strong impact on her thespian coloring. Tracey's nocturnal, nightmarish screams bring a sympathetic notice from Lyle, a relationship that develops and appears to soothe both their troubled

Does this work? Well, it's not Boy, Interrupted, but it is nearly as sobering. Melamed's work is an interesting exercise, an exhausting 100-minute journey into the darker side of life. We're not talking great filmmaking, but a promising, even admirable first feature, even if I felt at times that this reminded me more of someone's doctoral thesis in a dual major in psychology and filmmaking. Manic's landscape is filled with emotional thunderstorms; don't expect a sunny sky, but you might find a ray of hope.


Directed by:
Jordan Melamed

Starring:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Michael Bacall
Zooey Deschanel
Cody Lightning
Elden Henson
Sara Rivas
Don Cheadle

Written by:
Michael Bacall
Blayne Weaver

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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