After an argument with a fellow schoolkid ends with him bashing his opponent’s head in with a baseball bat, seventeen-year-old Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is taken to a secure unit. Dr David Monroe (Don Cheadle) is the man charged to help Lyle sort through his many problems.
Manic is a drama of alienated, troubled teenagers, albeit set in a mental hospital and given an up-to-the-minute handheld-DV look. How well the film – and others like it, such as The Breakfast Club – plays will certainly depend on your tolerance of self-absorbed angst-ridden teenagers. For me, those years seem much less long ago than they actually are, and if these characters aren’t especially likeable they at least ring true. Although the young cast play their roles well they are overshadowed by a very fine performance from Don Cheadle. He’s entirely convincing, in a relaxed performance that simply doesn’t seem like acting – and a moment when this cool-as-cucumber psychologist finally blows his top is the best scene in the film.
Director Jordan Melamed goes for a documentary-style of surface realism, shooting the film on a Sony digital video camera, frequently handheld. Such catch-as-catch-can camerawork (apart from being the visual cliché of the last few years) can be used to cover a multitude of sins, and you could argue that Melamed certainly overuses it. The Blair Witch Project notoriously gave some of its audience motion sickness and if that includes you then watch Manic with caution. At times the incessant panning and wobbly tracking works, at others it becomes distracting. Melamed does show evidence of a good eye: towards the end there’s a striking shot of rape victim Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), with whom Lyle has struck up a tentative romance. The film works best when Melamed leaves his actors room to work, less well when his direction gets in the way. The film was shot in a real mental hospital, incidentally, with some of the inmates as extras. The ending is left open-ended.
Despite the material’s familiarity, Manic did hold my attention throughout the hour and a half it took to tell its story. It’s sufficiently well-acted to be worth a look.
For a different opinion, read Mike Sutton’s review of the Region 1 version here.
Manic is presented in an anamorphic transfer in a ratio of 16:9, opened up slightly from its theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. Given the method of filming, precise composition is a rarity, so the difference in ratios is of no consequence. Given the low-grade DV origins, it’s no surprise that the DVD transfer is full of artefacts, alternately washed out and brownish-yellow in hue, with poor black levels and shadow detail. Certainly not all video productions look like this, but as this was all intended by the filmmakers then the DVD transfer is a faithful rendition of the original materials.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, but apart from occasional efforts from the music score, this is possibly the most monophonic film I’ve listened to outside one of Woody Allen’s. Everything comes from the centre speaker. That said, there are no problems with clarity, so this is a soundtrack which does its job.
There are twelve chapter stops. The feature is subtitled for the hard-of-hearing, but not the extras. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.
Metrodome’s DVD (encoded for Region 2 only) has fewer extras than its Region 1 equivalent from MGM. Gone is the audio commentary from Melamed and co-star and co-writer Michael Bacall, and some deleted scenes have been jettisoned somewhere over the Atlantic. However, we do get a “Making of Manic” featurette. This is standard EPK stuff, combining behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and extracts from the film. However, one thing surprised me. Not to be ageist, but you’d usually imagine the first-time director of a “youth” film to be some twentysomething straight out of film school – however Melamed looks like he’s the wrong side of forty. For the record, this featurette is 4:3 full-frame and runs exactly ten minutes. It’s presumably the same one that’s on the Region 1 disc. We also get the theatrical trailer (non-anamorphic 1.85:1, running 2:38) which is heavy on “meaningful” dialogue. Finally, “more from Metrodome” is a series of trailers, for Spellbound, Last Party 2000, Amandla!, The Hard Word, My Life Without Me, Northfork, Valentin and Monster.
No-one would pretend that Manic is a great movie, but it wouldn’t be a waste of the hour and a half it would take you to watch it. However, if you want to buy the best version of this film on DVD, the Region 1 has more extras.