One of the best films to come from the 2001 Sundance Film Festival was “Manic,” a digital-video drama that was relegated to the second-class “American Spectrum” category and elicited no buzz before its premiere. At Sundance, just like in the regular movie world, sometimes the good stuff gets overlooked while the garbage gets overhyped ad nauseum.
“Manic” is set in a juvenile psychiatric ward, a sort of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for troubled teens (but without an evil nurse) where kids with violent, suicidal or other antisocial tendencies come to be rehabilitated. Their leader is Dr. David Monroe (Don Cheadle), a genuinely caring, down-to-earth man who not only doesn’t give hokey speeches; he actually SAYS he’s not going to give any hokey speeches.
David connects with the kids, truly doing his job even while struggling with his own personal issues (which, thankfully, are kept at the background of the film, maintaining an unwavering focus on the kids themselves).
The protagonist is Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in the ward after beating a kid with a baseball bat. He won’t talk about what happened, and his anger management issues are not helped any by fellow resident Mike (Elden Henson), an argumentative white-rapper wannabe who pushes everyone’s buttons and loves to fistfight.
Lyle’s roommate is Kenny (Cody Lightning), a young Indian boy who is rumored to have molested some boys younger than himself. A wisecracking youth named Chad (Michael Bacall, also co-writer) strikes up a friendship with Lyle, and soon the two are planning a trip to Amsterdam as soon as they can escape the hospital. Goth-chick Sara (Sara Rivas) and self-esteem-deprived Tracey (Zooey Deschanel) are among the other patients; Dave’s friend JC (Lydell M. Cheshier) and the uncompassionate Charlie (Blayne Weaver, the other co-writer) round out the cast as two hospital attendants.
The plot is secondary to the characters’ journeys, particularly with Lyle’s struggle to accept the idea that he actually does need help. He was taught violence by his father, just as it seems almost everyone here learned dangerous behavior from their parents. (Subtly, “Manic” is a sobering indictment of bad parenting.) He and Tracey become affectionate, though Tracey’s self-esteem issues and recurring nightmares are hindrances. And he has to keep from punching Mike in the face every time he sees him.
Don Cheadle, who has proven a sympathetic actor in several films, most notably in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” is a stabilizing presence in “Manic.” A scene in which he either flips out or pretends to flip out (we can’t tell which) is amazingly unsettling because it’s not what Dave is supposed to do. We expect erratic behavior from the kids, but if their leader goes over the edge, then what hope is there?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, from “Third Rock from the Sun,” was probably no one’s guess to be the next sitcom-hack-turned-legitimate-actor, but a few minutes with him in “Manic” will convince you otherwise. Lyle is incredibly real, looking at the world through narrow, somber eyes and hiding his natural compassionate tendencies with a mask of frightened bravado. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is absolutely riveting.
While cinema-verite digital-video projects became cliche at Sundance in 2001, the medium works well for “Manic.” Bacall and Weaver’s dialogue is natural and realistic, but still interesting. First-time director Jordan Melamed uses only natural lighting, which produces a marvelous effect when Sara is released from the hospital. The sunlight streams in through the windows and door, making it look like she’s walking into some incredibly bright hereafter. Factually, it just means the sun was in that position when the scene was shot (a cinematographer for an ordinary film probably would have blocked the light from coming in); symbolically, it means Sara is leaving this purgatory for a better place. A traditional movie, shot on film, could never have pulled off such a nice moment realistically. But with digital video, it makes perfect sense and adds a subtle touch of artfulness — a trait not normally associated with video.
I couldn’t detect a single false moment in the entire movie. Everyone’s dialogue, reactions and attitudes seemed completely believable. The ending is satisfying but not simplistically happy or nihilistically gloomy. “Manic” may not attain a wide audience simply because of the way it was filmed. If that happens, it’s a shame. It’s one of the best films we’ll see this year.
A (; )
In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.