Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 03, 2003 11:34 pm 
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"Manic" is depressing but real

"Manic" begins when a youth named Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor from a TV show, excellent here) is forcibly admitted to a psychiatric clinic for young people with problems. Most of them have done harm to themselves or others. Lyle fully qualifies: he has almost killed another boy with a baseball bat. He's given a room to share with a sweet, gentle Native American boy named Kenny (Cody Lightning), whose adoptive father has raped him and who has become a child molester himself. Chad (Michael Bacall), an articulate manic-depressive, becomes Lyle's friend and ally in admiration after Lyle whips Michael (Elden Hensen), a big blond aggressor (a bully, to be blunt) who fancies himself a black style gangsta leader and continues to be Lyle's provocateur and main enemy.

The supervisor and therapist, Dr. David Monroe (an admirable Don Cheadle), counsels the boys individually at times and engages them in a group session every day. Monroe's role, convincingly handled by Cheadle, is to keep it real and avoid cliché in all his interactions with the patients. There is also an artistic dope fiend Goth girl (Sara Rivas) and a traumatized wide-eyed rape victim (Tracy, played by the talented Zooey Deschanel) who screams every night. She, being the prettiest around, becomes Lyle's fleeing romantic interest. There are lively basketball games among the boys during which, behind a chicken wire fence, independent filmmaker William Richart plays an adult inmate who screeches like a demented peacock.

"Manic" is a kind of "Boy, Interrupted," with a more realistic approach than the Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie vehicle of a few years before; there's less of the kind of manipulative drama you get in "Cuckoo's Nest" and more of a sense of documentary realism. The movie was co-authored by Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver, who plays another of the supervisors: this is clearly a collaborative effort, and all concerned have worked to give "Manic" its unstructured cinema vérité baldness. The movie's strength is its ability to evoke some pretty raw, painful emotions; it offers no mediation between us and the often confused, always indigestible experiences on view. This is where "Manic" excels, and it means the acting feels authentic throughout.

The movie is perhaps less successful structurally because, inevitably, since the filmmakers don't want to force anything, there is not much of an arc happening, certainly not a positive one. Nor is there any cathartic sense of tragedy either. In the course of the action one girl leaves; the most visible of the rest of the patients only seem to be getting worse. Chad's planned release proves wildly premature. An interview Monroe arranges with Kenny's stepfather is a bad move with a disastrous result. The only ray of hope is that Dr. Monroe's honesty and forthrightness will have taught some positive lessons, and particularly move Lyle toward the realization that acting out his rage is unproductive.

But when the story ends, that realization is still far off. Lyle has one of his worst fights with Michael, and he uses a set of stolen keys to escape from the compound and wander out, running along a highway and then waiting for a bus he can't get onto. He is walking across a field toward a blurry building in the final shot -- where? Is he returning to the clinic? Is he finding a home? Or is he merely meandering into more trouble, more of the same? Dr. Monroe has told him he will probably always keep the rage that's inside of him, which may due to an abusive father. His only hope is to learn to control and live with that rage instead of letting it rule him.

"Manic" has almost a Brechtian quality because instead of providing an emotional resolution it forces you to think about the issues raised. It's not a criticism of some sort of luridly represented Dickensian institution but instead shows how hard such emotional problems are to treat, regardless of the methodology. The issue of too much reliance on meds is raised, but it's suggested that some cases like Chad's are in fact treatable chemically if (a big if) he'll only take the meds, while behavioral modification or cognitive therapy are more needed for someone like Lyle. No sweet resolutions or epiphanies are provided.

Melamed and his cinematographer have undermined, rather than underlined, their points visually. Throughout the filmmakers have chosen to use an aggressively vérité, dogme style of jittery hand held photography that's particularly in-your-face in the opening sequence, where it's meant to convey a sense of Lyle's traumatic, groggy experience of being forced to enter the ward against his will and under heavy sedation. This may work for some of us, but we start out with an unfortunate impression that the images are going to be even wilder and more irritating than they actually are. The continuing sweeps and swoops of the camera and the excessive close-ups are nonetheless obtrusive. This visual approach may be meant to reinforce a sense of documentary realism, but it's too distracting and annoying and becomes more a liability than a virtue. If Melamed and company had let the acting speak for itself without the intrusive visual style, this would be a more notable movie.

Besides the fine individual acting, since this is an institution and the main treatment is group therapy, ensemble performance is also important and provides some of the most memorable moments. Once, Lyle and Chad play loud music and move around the room wildly with the others as if they and everyone else were in a mosh pit in some imaginary rave or punk concert. The whole room falls into a violent dance and furniture is thrown around the room but Dr. Monroe, coming in, beckons to a guard to stand back, and nothing terrible happens. This illustrates better than anything his tolerance of the boys and willingness to let them be themselves, so long as they don't harm anyone. Another time when Lyle attacks the bully Michael during group therapy, Dr. Monroe himself loses it and yells and throws a chair. This is an unusual turn of events and leaves a strong impression. It's then that you realize the therapist too wrestles with dangerous emotions. It seems a weakness in the story that his only struggle is with cigarettes. But at least Nurse Ratched has been banished far away.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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