Jordan Melamed’s debut feature will undoubtedly be described by lots of critics as a juvenile version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and there’s something to that: it’s set in a ward for disturbed teens, the new arrival is a fellow who challenges the system, and another patient is even a Native American. But you could make an equally strong case that “Manic” is really just a bleaker variant of “The Breakfast Club,” in which a bunch of troubled youngsters bond when they’re forced to deal with one another in confinement; it even has a “communal dance” sequence, though in this case it’s a destructive rave-like rampage to the heaviest of metal rather than a music-video routine to “We Are Not Alone.” These kids, moreover, aren’t presided over by a nasty teacher but rather by a sympathetic doctor. Maybe “One Flew Over the Breakfast Club” would be a good compromise.
“Manic” begins with the admission of cocky, highly charged Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to a hospital facility after he’s brutally attacked a schoolmate with a baseball bat. He joins a group of patients under the care of kind, concerned Dr. Monroe (Don Cheadle). The others include Chad (co-scripter Michael Bacall), whose mood swings can be controlled only by meds he hates to take; Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), a pretty brunette whose mousiness alternates with bouts of screaming agony; Sara (Sara Rivas), a Goth gal; Kenny (Cody Lightning), a youthful child molester; and Mike (Eldon Henson), a hulking bully. Lyle comes to serve as the nucleus around whom the others circle. He and Chad become friends, dreaming about going off to Amsterdam and living a life of freedom there; he and Tracy become increasingly interested in one another; he befriends the sad, tormented Kenny (his roommate); he has continuous run-ins with Mike; and he becomes the main object of Monroe’s therapeutic efforts. The interconnections are rather contrived and formulaic, and the script takes several turns that aren’t terribly plausible (the kids are apparently allowed to wander to and from their rooms at will, even at night, and when Lyle determines to visit Kenny after he’s been transferred to another ward, he has no trouble making his way there unnoticed; meanwhile the older, more deeply disturbed patients we occasionally glimpse across a fence seem more like caricatures). When revelations arrive, moreover–the reason behind Lyle’s rage, the background to Kenny’s emotional problem–they come across as awfully pat. The picture is made to seem less obvious, however, by the gritty atmosphere, the happily ambiguous close, and the strong acting. Gordon-Levitt, who played the geeky high-schooler on TV’s “Third Rock from the Sun,” is quite simply a revelation: his anger and resentment seem genuine. Bacall is almost as fine, and if the other youngsters don’t match them, it’s largely because their roles aren’t nearly as complex. Among the adults, Cheadle strikes a dignified, Poitiersque pose convincingly.
Unhappily, the virtues of “Manic” are undermined by Melamed’s direction and Nick Hay’s high-definition video photography, which take the title much too literally. If you’ve ever been bothered by the hand-held camerawork Woody Allen has sometimes used, be prepared to hold onto the armrests here; the jumpiness of the shots is so extreme, and so pervasive, that anybody who suffers from motion sickness would be well advised to take a dose of your favorite medication before undertaking to sit through it. The style is designed, of course, to accentuate the inner turmoil of the adolescent characters, but over the course of a hundred minutes it becomes less bracing than irritating.
So while, thanks mostly to its young leads, “Manic” has flashes of insight and power, in the end the predictable structure and an overly frenetic visual approach take a heavy toll.