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Review of "Manic"

By Jordan Melamed (Director)
IFC Films, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 2nd 2004

Manic is a film about a psychiatric ward for deeply troubled teens.  It is fiction, written by the young writers Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver, who also act in it.  But the style of the film is highly influenced by documentary, shot on digital film, and avoiding mannerisms that might emphasize the drama of the situation but would heighten the sense of artificiality.  On the DVD commentary, director Jordan Melamed explains he sees this debut film as in the tradition of directors such as Lars Van Trier (best known for his bleak films Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) who are more concerned with communicating real emotion than employing impressive special effects.

The film starts with 17-year-old Lyle Jensen (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being admitted to the lock-down unit after having beaten another boy severely with a baseball bat in a fit of rage.  At first he is furious, convinced that there is nothing wrong with him.  Through his interactions with the other teens, especially in group therapy, he starts to recognize that his way of expressing his anger does no good.  At its heart, this is a simple film about Lyle's gradually increasing insight into himself.  Yet it is dramatically successful because of the strength of the performances and powerful cinematography. 

The most striking characters are the other residents of the ward.  Tracey wakes in the middle of the night screaming and can only be calmed by an injection.  Mike is a violent young man who likes provoking trouble.  Sara wears very dark make-up that seems to signal some kind of emotional turmoil.  Chad is self-destructive and apparently manic-depressive.  Kenny was sexually abused and has abused others.  Other characters are played by young people who were themselves institutionalized and gave advice to the actors on what the experience of being such a ward is really like.  The acting is astonishingly good, and several of the cast give mesmerizing performances.  Don Cheadle plays the ward therapist David Monroe with great conviction, bringing a sense of a center to the whole story.  David leads the group therapy sessions and handles the volatile dynamics calmly, provoking different individuals to face their issues and reminding them why they are in the ward in the first place. 

One theme in the film comes from Chad's fascination with Camus' book The Myth of Sisyphus, based on the ancient story in which Sisyphus is condemned to roll a heavy boulder up to the top of a hill until it falls back down again, and then to start again.  The film suggests that recovery from childhood trauma or mental illness is like this; the pain will never end, but the task of dealing with it continues forever.  Recovery is not the absence of pain, but rather learning how to cope with it.  This is linked with Van Gogh's paining "Crows in the Wheatfield," which is a sign of the despair they feel as well as possible hope of escape.  Maybe it's profound, but it also seems a little adolescent; maybe that is appropriate for a film about teens, but it is not what makes the film memorable.

The power of Manic comes from its ability to depict the naked vulnerability of these miserable young people and their search for ways to cope with their unhappiness.  Of course, we see the group therapy.  But we also see the therapeutic value and consolation of the violence of music in bands like Deftones, Slipknot, and Rage Against the Machine.  There is the camaraderie from quiet conversations between different characters, and the developing relationship between Lyle and Tracey.  And there is the catharsis of shooting hoops.  These are unsurprising elements in recovery, but they nevertheless manage to be moving.  The tensions between Lyle and Mike and Chad's anger serve as important dramatic counter-balances to the gradual recovery and make them all the more poignant.

In contrast to other films that have portrayed the mental illness of the young, such as Girl, Interrupted, Jordan Melamed's work does not question the validity of psychiatry, although it does make clear how difficult it is to help those with illness. As a low budget independent film, the unpolished hand-held camera work gives it an edgy feel.  The editing includes a great deal of fast cutting that is enormously effective in conveying confusion and anxiety.  It is likely to especially appeal to a young audience, but anyone with an interested in psychological turmoil should see it.  While it has some flaws, Manic is one of the best portrayals of mental illness in recent film. 



© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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