Living Real Lives
“It’s so addicting, to look into that lens and see it happening in that moment. It’s more exciting than real life.” Remembering the production of Manic for the DVD commentary track, director Jordan Melamed spends most of his time on the good stuff. While the budget was small and the schedule was tight, the movie was plainly a thrilling experience. There’s nothing like the first time.
Shot in 22 days with only a couple of digital video cameras, Manic mostly takes up the perspective of Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), beginning on the day he is committed to a psychiatric facility. His recent assault on a classmate with a baseball bat has scared his mother, who seeks help from David Monroe (Don Cheadle), a compassionate staff psychologist wrestling with his own demons, as well as a group of troubled kids—abused Kenny (Cody Lightning), suicidal Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), brutal Michael (Elden Henson), gothy Sara (Sara Rivas), and bipolar Chad (Michael Bacall, who also cowrote the script and speaks on the commentary track with Melamed)—simultaneously joined together and split apart by their insistent, surly angst.
Though the plot recalls those of other films in the teen-psychiatric-patients subgenre (David and Lisa , I Never Promised You a Rose Garden ), it does bring to bear a certain energy. As Melamed puts it for the “Behind the Scenes” documentary on MGM’s new DVD, “Manic is very contemporary and Manic is very raw. What I wanted to do was to create almost a documentary feel, to break the illusion of filmmaking and to say, ‘These are real kids, living real lives.’” To that end, he says, “I guess you could say it’s a Dogme film” (which he then defines for commentary track listeners), influenced by John Cassavetes. He and his performers made use of careful scripting, rehearsing, and improvising. According to Melamed, “The idea of the film was to try to get past whatever the filmmaking devices are, and actually see if we could put these people in this one location and make it very, very real, and let them become the characters.” (The director notes the importance of preparation: “Improvisation for improvisation’s sake, it sucks.”)
Lyle’s journey starts at the Northward Mental Institution, in the scrubby nowhere outside Los Angeles. It’s as dismal a place as you can imagine, tiled and dank and horribly color-schemed. Melamed says they shot in an abandoned “adolescent ward, which is as ugly as a Burger King… This is what they do, this is how they try to make the kids feel good, with these bright colors, these horrible, ugly arches, and light filtering through in one place in the whole goddamn ward. It’s incredibly depressing, but it is real.”
As Lyle first enters the ward, the film takes on a yellow cast, blurry and skittery under an Aphex Twin track, emulating, as Melamed describes it, “what it looks like when you’ve been pumped up by halydol.” Like his fellow victims of abandonment and abuse (by parents and attendants), Lyle is fearful, hostile, and abusive, constitutionally unable to make informed decisions. The endless nature of their struggle is informed, say both Melamud and Bacall, by Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” where “meaning is found in the struggle,” rather than in its end (which never comes, at least not here).
The movie’s most effective scenes are those that observe the kids from a distance, without heavy-handed emblems, like a crow on the basketball court, or worse, a patient who thinks he’s a bird. (In one of the deleted scenes commentaries, Melamed discusses this guy, mostly cut from the film: “This is Bill Richert, the actor who plays Falstaff in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, among other things, who showed up on set in character, meaning that he was a bird… feathers in his hair and eggs spouting out of his mouth.” Melamed admits, “I just could not direct him, I could not get him to be anything but a bird, to layer it with anything else in the film. Sorry, Bill.”) Some of these scenes include “real kids,” institutionalized kids who agreed to be in the movie. The “actor kids” also spend time in the rec room, alternately relaxed, raging, or dazed, like their meds make it hard for them to do more than watch tv. Lyle and Chad get the chance to self-medicate (they smoke a joint in the bathroom) and crank up the radio. Slamming around the room, they break stuff.
The kids’ primary lesson is that they’re on their own, that even the adults who mean well can’t save them. No wise Whoopi Goldberg or malevolent Nurse Ratched here. Just people who make mistakes. Melamed says, “In most movies set in mental hospitals, some of the characters are banging their heads against the wall and are really violently insane. We tried really hard to blur that line between what it is to be sane and what it is to be crazy. And that line is really thin.” The inclination is admirable, not only to make the kids sympathetic and recognizable, but also to challenge viewer presumptions about sanity.
Which brings us back to David, increasingly at a loss as to how to handle his charges—even with burly security guys always lurking nearby—much less help them. David’s approaches to his patients are alternately conciliatory and confrontational: “How do you deal with your anger?”, “You got work to do, Lyle,” “Wherever you’re going, you’re still gonna be there,” or even, “Tell me one thing right now that gives your life meaning.” He’s at a loss as often as the kids seem to be, trying to be a guide without pretending to be a savior.
David’s complexity is a function of his vulnerability and frustration, indicated in a weird little montage sequence where his questions to patients sitting across his desk begin to turn into a series of similar exchanges, reflecting the distressing revolving-door effect of the all these kids in chaos: Lyle is replaced by Tracy is replaced by Chad is replaced by David himself in the patient’s chair. He is them, or imagines himself as them, or is afraid they’re him. All are searching for “meaning,” but there’s not much chance of finding it in an underfunded institution where “recreation” is one six-foot high basketball hoop.
The group discussions wander off into complaint sessions, and much as David tries to steer them toward “constructive” responses to one another’s (rare) admissions, he can’t get them to feel responsible, for each other or themselves. Inevitably, his own sense of responsibility is suffocating him. Manic is about learned behavior: Lyle’s dad beat him down, but so has most every aspect of the culture around him, insisting that he’s unworthy, dysfunctional, inferior. Kenny, only the most outrageous case, is a Native American kid whose father left whim with a medicine bag to ward off “evil bad things,” and whose white stepfather is exactly that, an evil bad thing, so deranged that he sexually abuses the boy even when he’s in the visiting room—in front of David. That this stepfather is even allowed into the building by doctors and administrators (who apparently didn’t do their homework) is alarming, at the least, but it does provide a staggering image of the damage that adults can do.
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