Aimed somewhere between the anti-Kansas of Larry Clarks Kids and the inverse-Oz of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is Manic, the long-awaited first dramatic feature to receive production financing from Next Wave Filmss new digital division, Agenda 2000. The debut effort of director Jordan Melamed, the film tracks a handful of adolescents institutionalized in a private mental hospital as they battle the hypocritical adult world that keeps them trapped there.
The film centers on Lyle ("Third Rock from the Sun"s Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a boy whose off-the-map rage has landed him in his sole alternative to prison: Northwood Mental Institution. In group and individual therapy sessions, Lyle and his peers spit that jarring brand of jaded-yet-utterly-innocent dialogue one hears from real teenagers whose complex lives regularly slip through our cultural cracks. Urged to identify within themselves some convincing sense of meaning by an empathic shrink, David (Don Cheadle), the patients smash against the empty society they are about to inherit, striving to shake loose truths sturdy enough to sustain them.
Director Melamed, 39, already has an Emmy under his belt for his American Film Institute thesis short about a gambling addict, A Corner in Gold, which was featured at the Cannes Emerging Filmmakers Showcase in 1998. "Im attracted to any character who has trouble controlling his demons," Melamed says. Actors Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver wrote Manic, and what is remarkable about the script is its respect for the seriousness of these troubled kidss minds; dialogue roams believably from metal and hip-hop "who-do-you-likes" to denser philosophical queries.
With its tight budget, Manic couldnt be shot in an operating mental hospital, so Melamed arranged to film in Camarillo, an abandoned asylum in southern California. "The old unit looks like the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest institution that weve all come to know," he says. "But we found the adolescent unit, which was much more modern and eerie in the way that our culture has taken things and turned them into Burger King, with that sort of prefabricated attempt to be Romanesque. Instead of paying attention to detail, we grasp onto suburban style. There was something so hollow about this place."
During the development of the film, Melamed visited mental hospitals that treat the young. "A friend of one of the writers snuck me into a hospital, where I posed as a psychology student and sat through group therapy," he relates. "I got a sense of those kinds of adolescent institutions, and they do make a crazy attempt to be comfortable and treat the kids well. And yet I cant believe that kids can get better in a place where they are shuttled in and out every few weeks. Its all about getting love, right? These people have busted relationships, and how can you repair that in a week?"
Casting director Mali Finn, no stranger to moving between the majors (Titanic) and the indies (Sunday), helped Melamed fill the adult roles with notable actors like Cheadle and William Richert. Melamed, in turn, pushed his cast of up-and-coming young actors for an extremely naturalistic style. "I told them that we were looking for honesty and a dedication to making something very real and that they would have to throw themselves into it." Hoping to add to the authenticity of the film, Melamed brought in former mental hospital patients as extras.
Of his decision to film in digital video, Melamed says, "I wanted the actors to stay in character whether they thought they were on camera or not, because we didnt know if we were going to pan to them, and we wanted the camera to have 360-degree mobility as often as possible. I cant imagine ever being able to work that way with a film camera, because of the size and the weight and the lights and all that. And the sort of realism I was going for and the grittiness of the material just seemed to fit with the feeling that you get from shooting digitally and then blowing the image up. You get a very voyeuristic, powerful feeling from it."
Melamed hopes he has given Manic a documentary-like veracity, particularly as the films concerns couldnt be more real. "I dont know if you can point your finger at any one place," he says, "but because of the nature of the times that we live in, I think there is a lack of meaning in kidss lives." Or, as Chad at one point declares, "Im just being hyperaware, you know? Im just too fucking conscious!" Gabrielle Idlet