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.
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
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
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.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult