While the Dogme-style, hand-held-vid, quasi-verite drama is rapidly becoming this new decade’s arthouse cliche, that doesn’t mean it’s tapped out yet. Given the right mix of subject matter, craft and conviction, these potential affectations can still carry an electric charge. Case in point: Jordan Melamed’s first feature “Manic,” a riveting troubled teens story that has the unvarnished poignance of first-rank docus (e.g. “Streetwise,” “Decline of Western Civilization III,” etc.) on similar thematic turf. Cast of rising young film/TV thesps will only go so far in helping a tough-minded pic unlikely to pull same-aged viewers until it hits the home-vid market. Further fest play and strong critical support could bolster potential for an arthouse run pitched toward older auds.
Taking place entirely in a private psychiatric facility, film begins with Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) all cool self-control as a nurse dresses his wounds from a baseball game fight — one that evidently left the other guy in much, much worse shape.
Lyle’s calm, however, evaporates when he realizes that this time his tearful mother isn’t taking him home. At a loss after too many such incidents, she’s committed him to juvenile lockdown Northwood until his “anger management” woes pose less of a menace to society. Illustrating her point, Lyle flips out, and burly attendants with hypodermics rush to quell his rage.
He wakes up groggy in a sterile room shared with timid Kenny (Cody Lightning), a 12-year-old molestee/molester. Lyle is furious about his new circumstances, trapped in a ward with teens of wide-ranging dysfunctionality. He’s disinclined at first to befriend peer inmates, let alone cooperate with Northwood staff led by ever-patient but exhausted Dr. Monroe (Don Cheadle).
Eventually, however, Lyle reluctantly acquires some allies — as well as a foe in the obnoxious bully Mike (Elden Henson). Among the ward’s other “cases” is Chad (co-scenarist Michael Bacall), whose bipolar disorder has left him woefully ill-prepared for an imminent 18th birthday, institutional release and family-fortune inheritance. He begs Lyle for his friendship, pretending to go along with a mutual escape plan.
Clinging like a cub to Goth-garbed cynic Sara (Sara Rivas) is pretty Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), a shrinking violet whose subterranean self-esteem has led to screaming night terrors and waking self-mutilation. Opposites attract: Tracy and Lyle are drawn to one another.
These and other ward residents, some just briefly seen, are sketched in vivid yet incomplete terms. Script by Bacall and Blayne Weaver (who plays a small role) wisely resists “explaining away” each youth’s psychological makeup, leaving us to sort out truths the teens themselves are unwilling or unable to articulate.”Manic” advances various plot threads through deceptively casual, slice-of-life sequences, conveying the boredom and volatility of institutionalized life. (When passage of time assumes importance toward the end, however, this “medicated” vagueness becomes a minor flaw.) The few high-energy set pieces are credible and pointed, including two scrimmages on the b-ball court, and one exhilarating, then tense ensemble slamdance to a track by angst-ridden rap-metalheads Korn.
More often, though, “Manic” builds a sense of character intimacy via scenes that have a docu-style messiness (notably the recurrent rap-group sessions with Dr. M) or put individual emotions under harrowing white-light scrutiny. Inability of these kids to protect themselves emotionally, let alone avoid hurting others, comes through in several raw, piercing moments.
Belief is sometimes stretched by the ward’s apparent lack of nocturnal lockdown. (Would such kids be free to sneak into each others’ rooms?) A discord-fostering attendant’s role is underdeveloped. By and large, however, “Manic” feels remarkably uncontrived, its realism abetted by location shooting at a shuttered Southern California mental health facility. Ending manages to be bittersweet, upbeat and ambivalent at once.
Impact owes much to a cast of seasoned young pros who might easily be mistaken for inspired amateurs. Most striking is Gordon-Levitt, whose lean, mean, yet palpably good-intentioned Lyle couldn’t be further from his role as the junior alien on long-running sitcom inanity “3rd Rock From the Sun.”
Limning quiet strength on the edge of disillusioned burnout, Cheadle again invests a potentially stock part (the Lone Caring Caregiver) with restrained, riveting complexity.
Digital lensing favors close-ups and head-swiveling movement, the textural grit offset by “Northwood’s” ironically pastel-bright interiors. Editing is exemplary. Sparse soundtrack of pre-existing music makes effective thematic use of one spectral instrumental motif.