Shot in a raw, gritty, handheld manner that often makes it feel like a documentary, Manic is a film that you’ve likely seen before, or at least you’ll feel as if you’ve seen it at some point in your life. If you’ve ever seen a movie in which a character is placed in a mental hospital, you’ve seen Manic, as it hits all the beats required of such a film and rarely deviates from the formula. Manic‘s claim to fame is that its characters are primarily young teenagers.
The lead is Lyle Jensen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is forced into a juvenile psychiatric ward after nearly killing another kid with a baseball bat. He claims nothing is wrong with him, but the cigarette burns on his arms and obvious anger issues say otherwise. The primary psychiatrist is Dr. Monroe (Don Cheadle), and he says that they’re going to help him with his issues. Perhaps having a caring and genuinely good primary doctor is another thing that Manic does differently. Dr. Monroe does seem like he really wants to help these kids.
From this point, the film progresses mainly as you’d expect. Each of the secondary characters at the mental hospital is defined almost solely based on the problem that brought them there. One likes to fight. One is self-harming. Another lacks self confidence and screams at night for what seems like no reason. One is agoraphobic and manic-depressive. That’s how we’re to tell these characters apart. I can’t be the only one who finds that a little sick, right? We’re defining these characters solely by their issues? That happens too much in real life, and these types of movies often reinforce that viewpoint.
It’s convenient and considering that the characters have all gathered in this location to deal with their problems, I suppose it’s not too condemnable. Most of Manic winds up following the day-to-day activities of Lyle. He goes to group discussion sessions, plays basketball, talks with a couple of the other kids — he befriends one and begins a relationship with another — and loosely plans an escape.
There are also fights, which makes sense considering more than one character is in this ward to deal with anger issues, and almost everyone else seems to be antagonist. It’s like they want to see a blow-up; they hope to see their peer “lose it” because it’s entertainment for them. The dialogue, especially in the group sessions, is taunting and toying. We’ll probably never know how much of the dialogue was improvised but it at least gives the impression that a good chunk of it was.
Perhaps that feeling is owed more to the filming style than the writing. This is one of those films that wants to give off the appearance of being a documentary. The camera never once even thinks about being placed on a tripod; it is instead held in the hands of someone who has no idea how to keep it even remotely steady. Lots of close-ups and lengthy takes are used. The effect is to make us feel like we’re there, and that the events are really happening. It’s effective at both of those things. Some people hate shaky-cam work, and I’ll admit that in the wrong projects it can be overused. It fits with this one.
It feels raw, it feels unrehearsed, and it feels real. That’s what the filmmakers are going for and that effect was realized in Manic. You often don’t remember that you’re watching a movie when Manic is playing. You feel there, like you’re watching real people struggle with their mental disorders. Part of this success also comes from the filmmakers not exaggerating the issues these people are facing. They define them a bit too much, sure, but the characters have all been written in a realistic way.
Going hand-in-hand with that writing is the acting. Many of the younger actors in the film hadn’t been in more than a handful of projects before this one, and even for the ones who had, this is a departure. As our lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt exhibits surprising depth and charisma. He, a child star, had not had a role like this one before. For him, it works well as a transition to more adult roles. He has to be profane, angry, and carry the whole film on his back. It works.
The supporting cast also has to perform with more subtlety than these types of roles sometimes require. You’ve seen “crazy people in a mental hospital” before, but the ones in Manic, while dealing with several issues, aren’t over-the-top in their portrayal of mentally ill individuals. And Don Cheadle’s caring doctor who has unconventional methods — and as a result comes across as a breath of fresh air in terms of movie characters — winds up stealing the show.
You’ve seen the basic story of Manic. A person being forced against his or her will to enter a psychiatric ward isn’t a new storyline. But in the details lie the reasons to give this film a shot. The gritty filming style makes you feel like you’re there, or at the very least watching a documentary of real events, the characters are well-performed — Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Don Cheadle stand out — and while I wish the secondary characters weren’t strictly defined by their mental illness, it works in a setting like this one. You’ve seen films like Manic before, but this film makes it a story worth revisiting.