I remember sitting in the theater during “Girl, Interrupted” thinking that if I had been an institutionalized teenager, I would have probably been even more offended by the film than I already was. I wouldn’t want my very personal problems tritely sentimentalized that way by some half-assed after-school special masquerading as Oscar bait. At least now there’s a film that gets it right.
Our introduction to the juvenile wing of the Northward Mental Institution outside Los Angeles is through new patient Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), sent here after beating another kid with a baseball bat during a fight. Lyle has a lot of difficulty keeping a lid on his near bottomless pit of rage. Once inside, he meets some kids with problems of their own. There’s Lyle new bipolar best friend Chad (co-writer Michæl Bacall), Lyle’s sexually abused roommate Kenny (Cody Lightning), the withdrawn and suicidal Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), death-rock artist Sara (Sara Rivas), and Lyle’s new sworn enemy and would-be player Michæl (Eldon Henson). Throughout the film, this group is treated by therapist Dr. David Monroe (Don Cheadle), who isn’t sure if he’s actually doing any good or whether some of his patients might actually be getting worse.
This is exactly the kind of film the Dogme 95 movement was meant to inspire. As first-time director Jordan Melamed shot the film on digital video in the adolescent wing of an actual abandoned mental hospital, the movie is almost completely Dogme 95-compliant, with the only real violation being the occasional musical score.
The result is a harshly honest picture. In reality, troubled people never really get rid of their demons. The best you can hope for is to find a way to control them. In the end, that’s what “Manic” is really about: a glimmer of hope. At this stage, the first success that Dr. Dave needs is for the kids to realize they need help, and that their situation is not hopeless.
As always, Don Cheadle is fantastic, but the film belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A long way from “Third Rock From the Sun” with his taut physique, close-cropped hair and goatee, he proves here to be one of best actors of his generation. With his TV show apparently coming to an end, he’s more than ready for the next phase of his career. Hopefully Hollywood is ready to embrace the new Joe as well.