Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is mad. Glowering. He’s in a hospital exam room, his head’s bloody. A doctor, David Monroe (Don Cheadle), comes by, starts asking questions. He’s the staff psychiatrist, and he’s wondering out loud how Lyle might have got his “ass kicked.” Lyle resists, not even about to talk with this institutional type, especially one who’s accusing him of tweaking, or worse, being a wuss.
As it turns out, Lyle isn’t precisely the victim. He smashed in another kid’s head with a baseball bat, acting out of what appears to be uncontrollable rage. His mother’s afraid of him, and has called in the authorities to have him committed until someone can figure out what to do with him. And so, Lyle’s hauled off to the juvenile ward of the Northward Mental Institution, in the scrubby nowhere outside Los Angeles. Here he confronts a pack of variously troubled kids, joined together in relentless and surly angst.
Lyle’s journey — uneven, unfinished — is at the center of Jordan Melamed’s Manic. Shot with a lightweight digital camera, the film skitters from face to face, as Lyle and his fellow patients do their best not to reveal too much in group. Lyle finds himself surrounded by ravaged souls — his roommate Kenny (Cody Lightning), gothy girl Sara (Sara Rivas), nightmare-plagued Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), bipolar Chad (Michael Bacall, who co-wrote the script with Blayne Weaver), and Lyle’s prime rival for who can be baddest boy on the block, big-posing wigger Michael (Eldon Henson) — none of whom think his problems are anything special.
Unfortunately, none of them is particularly special either. As kids-in-a-psych-ward movies go, this one pretty much follows the formula. They find sympathy and support with one another, even something resembling romance, in the case of Lyle and Tracy (1962’s unsettling David and Lisa would be the longstanding head of this class). Manic leans heavily on a familiar device, making the kids into victims of abandonment and abuse (by parents and attendants). As the film’s psychologic has it, this makes them fearful and abusive, constitutionally unable to make informed decisions.
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); some of these 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. In a music video with Fred Durst, they’d be fine; in an institution, this bit of release leads to disaster.
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 evil Nurse Ratched here. Just people who make mistakes. 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?” or “Wherever you’re going, you’re still gonna be there” or again, “Tell me one thing right now that gives your life meaning”), never movie-magically insightful. (This from the man who made the name “Joe” sound utterly thrilling in those NFL Playoff ads.)
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 samey-same exchanges: 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 basketball hoop. Just so, 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 for themselves. And his own sense of responsibility is suffocating him.
It’s not his fault, of course. Manic is a movie 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, driven to sexually abuse 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 visual to indicate the damage that adults can do.