It’s hard to believe that most all of the young actors in Manic (2001) are just that – actors. It would so naturally seem like director Jordan Melamed walked into a juvenile psych ward and documented its day-to-day-happenings. Although this low-budget cinema verite hosts many famous actors now, as young people, they seem to understand mental illness hauntingly well.
The film follows Lyle Jensen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he is admitted into a juvenile psych ward for a vicious assault on a fellow member of his baseball team. The ward’s doctor, Dr. David Monroe (Don Cheadle), is determined to help the teenagers in his ward cope with their emotional problems so that they can live in the ‘real world’. A host of behavioral and psychological disorders are introduced in the typical circle-discussion-therapy of movies set in hospital or psychiatric wards. Kenny (Cody Lightning) is Lyle’s roommate, and is a barely-thirteen-year-old child molester. Chad (Michael Bacall) is a manic-depressive who soon becomes Lyle’s best friend in the ward. Tracy (Zooey Deschanel) has low self-esteem and terrible nightmares, and connects emotionally and romantically to Lyle.
For those who have trouble with motion sickness, this movie will not be your cup of tea. Each scene is shot completely with a handheld camera, and a lot of shakiness and lack of focus is the result. The videography, though occasionally headache-inducing, gives a good look into the emotional impulsiveness and chaos of the teenage patients, as well as the uneasy feeling of being in a constant state of psychological upheaval. There is no still moment throughout the whole movie, and it keeps the viewer on their toes, wondering what the impulses of the young patients will be, and also the entailing consequences of those impulses.
Dave Monroe is the only true tie that his patients have to the outside world, and he constantly encourages them, not through bribes or sugary falsehoods, but by using his own emotional turmoil as a grasp to relate to the teenager’s struggles. He asks questions like “What gives your life meaning?” in order to encourage progress, but also as a demand of the viewer: What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment? Why are you alive?
For this movie, I live for the subtle and magnificent performances of most all of the characters. Levitt conveys his feeling almost exclusively through his body and facial expressions; whether the camera captures his whole body or just his eyes, the intense undercurrents of his past struggles surface, almost in an uncomfortable manner. Cheadle, too, was fantastic. Although he is an acting giant in his own right, he provided a solid foundation that allowed his younger counterparts to find their acting niche.
Manic opened up an uneasy Pandora’s box: one of adolescent psychological disorder that, for most films, is used merely as a throwaway explanation for why characters act the way they do. It delves into the history behind each character’s disorder, not in order to make light of their struggles, but so that the viewer and the character can understand them, but so that they may both embrace them.
Melamed accentuates the importance of freedom throughout the film – for the teenagers, freedom is primarily a release from the ward, but it is also the freedom from their emotional distress and seeming societal limitations. For the viewer, Manic is the freedom to experience a raw sense of uninhibited feeling, and to actually be okay with their discomfort. It is the freedom to experience not only acting or film as an art, but pure emotion as its own art.