July 26, 2010

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Day 5 of JGL fever is gonna mess you up!

You know a movie is indie when you look at the first few frames and all you want to do is throw up from motion sickness. If you haven't figured out my opinion on the matter, I'll just lay it out for you. I believe that style, when used effectively, can salvage lack of substance, somewhat. A movie may have nothing in the story or acting department, but it can cover for it with a certain sense of slickness. Look at Wanted. That's what I believe, but I also believe that it can work in the opposite direction. Too much style can squander substance, especially when the substance in question is very well crafted. Manic is such a film. This 2001 indie boasts strong writing and incredibly powerful performances, but, the cinema verité look that the director chose to go with distracts from those things so much that you sometimes don't even notice them. It single handedly brings this film down from a YAY, to an eh.

You couldn't get more screwed up than this if you tried!

Manic begins with a kid, Lyle, being committed to a mental hospital for teenagers. Basically, every bad thing you could possibly imagine happening to kids, rape, violence, etcetera and so forth, has happened to the kids in this hospital. Lyle himself is in there because he went psycho on a kid with a baseball bat when he made fun of the fact that Lyle was beaten by his father. 


Anyway, as Lyle slowly acclimates to his new environment, he starts to build relationships with the various people around him. He immediately conjures up friendships with Kenny, a twelve year old sex offender, and Chad, a bipolar anarchistic young man, instantly picks fights with the wanna be thug Mike, and is quickly attracted to Tracey, a quiet and sad victim of sexual abuse. The one constant in his life, apart from his new peers, is Dr. David Monroe, who is trying so very hard to stay sane as he attempts to help better these kids. As these relationships being to take root, Lyle begins to plot an escape from the hospital. 

This is an extremely tough film to comprehend and sit through. I don't normally admit stuff like this, but I am psychologically disturbed after having watched this movie. The story and script are absolutely brutal in their depictions of how damaged and messed up these kids are. There are instances where I actually covered my eyes, it was too intense. There's one scene in particular involving Kenny that is sure to cause some people to turn the movie off. There is not one light moment in this entire film, save for a quick segment near the end, where Lyle and Tracey finally admit to each other how they feel, and find some temporary solace from their pain. It's a beautiful scene. This movie will make your skin crawl, it's so realistic!

When this movie was released in 2003, most people knew Joseph Gordon-Levitt as "that alien kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun." As Lyle, Gordon-Levitt does away completely with the child actor facade and becomes a full on adult. It's devastating to watch as this guy unwillingly comes to grips with all the things that pain him in his life, and heartbreaking as he sees his peers and friends sink deeper into their respective holes. It's a raw and powerful performance from JGL, the first of many to come from the guy. 

Zooey Deschanel is Tracey. She doesn't say much, but, she doesn't need to. Deschanel's eyes do all the talking for her. They are so friggin' gorgeous that they could blow a hole in your chest; they are the bluest thing in the whole movie. As good as Gordon-Levitt is, I think Deschanel steals the show. She is simply mesmerizing to watch, even when she does something as simple as read a book. 

The last two performances I want to call out are given by Don Cheadle and Michael Bacall. Cheadle is great as Monroe, always balancing his own insecurities with the confidence and maturity that he knows his kids need to see. And Bacall, as Chad, is simply astounding. His character arc is one of the best in the movie, and Bacall absolutely nails it. I mean, he also co-wrote the script, so, he probably had a good sense of the character to begin with, but, even so. 

Performances are all uniformly excellent. They are all genuine, which is the best possible thing that you could ask for with a film like this. Now, if only we could notice them. 

I can't look away!

So, if I can't speak any higher of the performances and writing, why does this film get an INDIFFERENCE instead of a SATISFACTION or an ECSTACY? Well, director Jordan Melamed was clearly worried that his film wouldn't appear indie enough, so he decide to shoot the whole thing digitally, and not spend money on a single tripod. He is seemingly so desperate for this film to look like a documentary, that he goes way overboard with the handheld thing. He gets in so close to his actor's faces that we can almost see their pores. He shakes the camera around so much that nausea is sure to be an inevitability for some people. It's clear the movie was made for next to nothing, but, I can't help but ask, "Why"? The script and acting are already more authentic than most anything else that's available, so why bother with the whole camera thing. It makes a great movie into just an alright one, and I know that seems really harsh, but, believe me, it is incredibly distracting and takes away so much from the finished product. 

I'd be lying if I said that the shooting style was the only thing wrong with the film; it's not a perfect movie. There are some scenes, like when Lyle and Chad start a moshpit in the rec room, that go on forever. They could have just shown us half of the chaos they created, and be done with it, but Noooooo! They have to show us every single second of it, which would be fine, but, the energy of the scene peaks at the halfway point, and you're just watching the same thing for the rest of it. That happens about two more times throughout the film. It's wasn't, specifically, a bad choice. It was just unnecessary. Small things like that show how aggressively indie this movie is trying to be. I'm getting the sense that Melamed didn't have enough faith in his actors or the script to deliver what was needed, so he felt the need to compensate. He didn't need to. Everything was rock solid the way it was. 

But, if you can get past the awful camera work, there is one hell of a movie in it for you, provided you can sit through it. Seriously! I have only ever turned off one movie due to difficulty of subject matter in my entire life. That film was Oldboy (I know! I'll sack up and watch it eventually)I was almost tempted to add Manic to that list. This is one of the most savagely honest and brutally authentic movies I've ever seen. It's just that damn camera. It's brings this movie down so far! 




  1. That shaky camera pissed me off a lot, but the performances from the cast makes up for its dirty look.

  2. Shaky cam is my mortal enemy.

  3. Shaky cam is my mortal enemy.

  4. That shaky camera pissed me off a lot, but the performances from the cast makes up for its dirty look.