Manic Review

May 12, 2003 | 1:02pm EDT

It's Anger Management without the comedy or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without Jack Nicholson. Sounds cheerful eh? Lyle (Third Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a quiet but rage-filled 17-year-old is committed to a juvenile mental institution when he beats some kid senseless with a baseball bat after being teased relentlessly. Unlike the other kids in Dr. Monroe's (Don Cheadle) therapy group which includes rich Goth kid Sara (Sara Rivas) bully Michael (Elden Henson) and bipolar Chad (Michael Bacall who also co-wrote) Lyle is stoic and silent refusing to discuss his problems in any other way than with his fists. Lyle is increasingly attracted to the equally silent Tracey (Zooey Deschanel) who wakes the ward up every night screaming from nightmares and sympathetic to his painfully shy roommate Kenny (Cody Lightning) who has been raped by his stepfather. Despite Lyle's determination to hold on to his anger the doctor's words and advice slowly seep in. He begins to discover he has an inner strength that not only helps him learn to deal with his own issues but also gives him the desire--if sadly not the ability--to help others.

Gordon-Levitt owns this film doing a 540-degree shift from his lively Third Rock teen and demonstrating there's way more to this young actor than first meets the eye. Instead of chewing the scenery (as most actors playing angry people are wont to do) his Lyle is understated and forceful his seething fury at everything--including himself--masked by an unnervingly calm expression. You've no doubt that he's pissed as all get out as he whales on bellicose Michael for insulting Tracey without blinking an eye. As the wide-eyed and sweetly damaged Tracey Deschanel is quietly effective as is Lightning whose Kenny is heartbreaking without saying three words throughout the movie. The dialogue even that tossed off by the bit performers is so authentic that for a minute you could be convinced you're watching a documentary. Of everyone Cheadle is the least realistic as he spouts trite plastic-chair psychology and panders to the troubled teens ("Why are you here Michael?" "What makes you angry Chad?") while remaining strangely MIA during their biggest freakouts.

If big studio films are to commercial radio what indie films are to college radio then IFC's Manic could be the latter's Sonic Youth (which in fact would be appropriate given that the band's founder Thurston Moore provides music for the film). Director Jordan Melamed's debut has been on the shelf since it screened with some critical success at Sundance in 2001; two years later Melamed's Dogme95 style of absolute nonconformity (he follows the rules laid by directors like Lars von Trier by not using any fixed cameras special effects or anything that would peg the film to an existing genre) seems dated. From the get-go you're dizzied by jittery cinema verite camerawork that might once have seemed edgy but now is just flat-out annoying. In addition some of the metaphorical imagery is way too obvious--Van Gogh artwork birds the books the kids read. However Melamed pulls out some fascinatingly understated performances that are just restrained and youthlike enough to be startlingly believable (helped no doubt by being filmed in an actual abandoned mental institution).

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