“Who’s the most important person in your life?” The simple question is one of a handful that staff psychologist David Monroe (Don Cheadle) asks his adolescent patients during their group therapy sessions at Northwood Mental Institution. He seems to ask them that every day in a voice that modulates from arresting provocation to a throwaway laziness on the verge of the hypnotic that erodes the kids’ rocky defenses as patiently as the wind.
Lyle Jensen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, TV’s “Third Rock from the Sun”) sits in the circle, but manages to stay detached and outside of it, a rebel without a cause. Years of hard knocks must have gone into hardening his calloused cool. David’s questions are a spark and Lyle’s eyes glare like gasoline on asphalt. They seem to silently challenge his new therapist.
Lyle reads the question on his index card as if it’s a ridiculous joke, “Who’s the most important person in your life?” He softens, as if punch-drunk, into a teenage boy again and answers, “I don’t think ... I’ve met that person yet.” But then he puts his guard, his chin and his verbal dukes up: “But mostly I think it’s just as well. I mean, I almost hope that I never do meet ’em, ’cause if I do, I know they’ll just fuck me over.” Despite himself, he sounds honest — and the truth, for a moment, sets Lyle free.
Like Lyle, Manic at first seems to be putting up a front. Visually, it lives up to its title. The film’s look-Ma-no-tripod, documentary-styled camerawork goes from caffeine-overdose jitters to seismic quakes and tilts into expressionistic Dutch angles. First-time feature director Jordan Melamed amplifies his high-definition digital imagery to the point of distortion, oversaturating his hues and burning his highlights into whiteout. From the start, it all seems too obviously contrived, as if Melamed is trying too hard to create an art-film dialect of free-floating adolescent anxiety. But if you get your cinematic sea legs and your eyes adjust to the distorted light, the feeling of artsy pretension may burn off, leaving an apt atmosphere for Manic’s theme: the human need for meaning.
“Why are you here?” David asks that question over and over during group therapy and during the kids’ periodic one-on-one evaluations. He asks himself the same question. By the end, it transcends the therapeutic to become philosophical.
Each kid has his issues. For Kenny (Cody Lightning, Smoke Signals), Lyle’s Native American roommate, and Tracey (Zooey Deschanel, All the Real Girls) they’re rape issues. Sara’s (Sara Rivas) is anarchic freedom. But Lyle and white homeboy Mike (Elden Henson, O) have been committed to Northwood for acting out the issue that more or less underlies those of all of the others: alienated adolescent rage.
Writers and stars Micheal Bacall (Pumpkin) and Blayne Weaver personify different aspects of that rage in a continuum that ranges from the catastrophic implosions of Kenny’s episodes of catatonic depression, through Bacall’s character, Chad’s, compulsive self-mutilations, to Lyle and Mike’s explosions. They present the latter two kids as different sides of the same fractious coin: Where Lyle can picture himself as a pint-sized Billy Jack, a destroying angel with a dirty face meting out justice, Mike comments that fighting’s like fucking. Both repress the awareness that they’re self-destructive, like Kenny or Chad.
But that’s why the therapist is there. From the beginning, he hints that he’s had a troubled past as well. He offers Lyle a reflection of a road less traveled that forks away from Kenny’s living death, Chad’s world where “the same shit just happens over and over until you die” or Mike’s addiction to violence.
“What gives your life meaning?” David asks the group. He distills “imagination,” “freedom” and “friendship” from the more-or-less inadequate or dysfunctional answers given. Tracey says, “Love,” as she looks at Lyle, her wide, gray eyes limpid, belying the traumas that leave her screaming every night. David approves. “What gives your life meaning, Lyle?” David asks while Tracey expectantly looks at the boy. He defensively replies, “I don’t know.” But as he looks at a subtly disappointed Tracey, it seems that he does.
Unlike the accessible melodrama of Antwone Fisher, Manic may be a challenging journey that’s not all “pizza and blow jobs,” as David puts it. In this fresh collision of anxious neo-realism and expressionism, where affection and violence make strange bedfellows, just finding any meaning and love in life is heroic.
Showing exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S. of Maple). Call 248-644-3456.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].