I’m uncertain why Jordan Melamed, the young director of the independent film “Manic,” opted to set his first feature inside a juvenile mental institution. Perhaps he harbors a deep passion for Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” or perhaps the institution’s hothouse pressures reminded him of his earlier life in a different kind of snake pit, that of commodities trading. Whatever the case, like its troubled teenage characters, “Manic” periodically achieves that rarest of accomplishments in filmmaking -- it makes you forgive and sometimes forget its follies.
The film opens and closes on Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an angry live-wire who’s been committed after taking a baseball bat to another kid’s skull. Like much of the rest of the walking wounded congregated in his ward, Lyle seethes with rage at the world but directs his greatest fury inward. Self-inflicted cigarette burns tattoo his body and he tends to smash his head into walls, but Lyle doesn’t think he has an anger problem. He harbors little patience for the sad cases he’s forced to face in daily group therapy or for the almost impossibly cool counselor, David (Don Cheadle, appealing as usual), who’s trying to guide them through the muck. And in this respect, at least initially, he isn’t alone.
Watching other people haul out their neuroses and throw them around like majorettes isn’t always the roaring fun that moviemakers often think. Actors and directors love this kind of setup because it allows them to run up and down the performing scale with impunity, giving them license to go over the top -- sometimes way, way over the top. (“Cuckoo’s Nest,” after all, helped turn Jack Nicholson into “Jack.”) It also affords the filmmakers a built-in excuse. The actors can blame their wanton scenery-chewing on the characters, as can their director, and the critics will think they’re watching emotion in extremis, which explains how Angelina Jolie’s caterwauling trumped Winona Ryder’s delicate work in “Girl, Interrupted.”
It takes imagination and self-control to dodge the usual cliches of the cinematic loony bin. Written by Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver, “Manic” doesn’t traffic in platitudes of sharing-and-caring. The group-talk and anguished groping feel true, as does David’s frustrations with the kids, who act spookily adult but also occasionally suck their thumbs. Their pain rings true enough that it’s disappointing that Melamed opted to shoot in fidgety digital video.
Inspired in part by the Dogma school, Melamed probably imagined that the camerawork’s contrived artlessness would bring us closer to the characters. But between the choker close-ups and palsied swooping, the cinematography often looks like the handiwork of an overzealous social worker .
For the most part, the cast doesn’t suffer from all the close visual scrutiny, which leads to the film’s other intractable problem -- everyone looks absurdly attractive. Like Gordon-Levitt, most of the principal cast -- including Zooey Deschanel, Sara Rivas and Cody Lightning -- are a lip liner and a good hairbrush away from being magazine-editorial fabulous. But if the cast is distractingly pretty, the performances are also quite fine and, in the case of Gordon-Levitt, exceptional. It’s a measure of just how persuasively he inhabits the character that it may take you awhile to recognize the youngest cast member of “3d Rock From the Sun.” The performance and Lyle, a hard character to cozy up to, couldn’t be further from the charms of that sitcom, which is precisely why the actor and Melamed are two to keep an eye on.
MPAA rating: R, for disturbing violent content, strong language and some drug use.
Times guidelines: Adult themes, including some very upsetting violence. Suitable only for mature teenagers.
Q&A;: Jordan Melamed, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver will participate in a question-and-answer session after the 7:30 p.m. screenings today and Saturday.
IFC Films presents a Manic Production, released by IFC Films. Director Jordan Melamed. Writers Michael Bacall, Blayne Weaver. Producers Trudi Callon, Kirk Hassig. Director of photography Nick Hay. Production designer Carol Strober. Costume designer Dahlia Foroutan. Editors Madeleine Gavin, Gloria Rosa Vela. Casting Mail Finn. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark’s Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.