Manic

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Manic

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Manic

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In most psych-ward melodramas, patients either make it through therapy unscathed or their minds wither into dust, leading them to catatonia, suicide, a straitjacket, or a lifetime of drug-addled mumbling in a padded cell. But in Jordan Melamed's honest and moving Manic, not all patients are created equal: For many damaged souls, there's no assurance that the healing process will ever really end, only the hope that they can better learn to quell their inner demons. Set in the juvenile wing of a mental institution, where teens are committed for attempting to harm themselves or others, Manic yokes an unstable cadre of misspent youths into a surrogate family, led by a man who understands their turbulent emotions all too well. There are no sadistic nurses, no electroshock therapy, no talk about the real loons being outside the asylum: With unadorned style and directness, Manic simply rolls up its sleeves and delves into its characters' problems in all their complexity, showing great sensitivity toward a group dynamic that alternately encourages and impedes their recovery. By the end, some have made progress and some continue to lapse into destructive habits, but Melamed and his screenwriters avoid pat conclusions on any of them, except the hard truth that no one can ever quite escape themselves. In a striking departure from his years on TV's Third Rock From The Sun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a tough, wiry, temperamental outcast who gets committed after assaulting a classmate with a baseball bat. Under the watchful eye of cagey therapist Don Cheadle, Gordon-Levitt grows close to a Breakfast Club of troubled peers, including his roommate (Cody Lightning), a quiet Native American with a history of sexual abuse; a white bully (Elden Henson) who carries himself like a gangsta; a bipolar friend (Michael Bacall) with alarmingly dramatic mood swings; a rebellious Goth chick (Sara Rivas); and a pretty wallflower (the always-remarkable Zooey Deschanel) who wakes up screaming every night. The group sessions at the film's heart are a marvel of volatile chemistry, as Cheadle carefully referees a fractured yet powerfully dependent atmosphere, charged with hostilities that are lobbed around the room like grenades. Discussions are often sparked by basic questions–"What do you like best about yourself?" "What gives your life meaning?"–yet the answers are hard to come by and even harder to bear, exposing the vulnerability that lies beneath the toughest of skins. Though sympathetic to all its richly drawn characters, Manic isn't unduly optimistic or despairing about their future prospects; it deals in ambiguities that other dramas about mental illness studiously work to avoid. In the film's view, full recuperation and lost causes are equally rare: Most have to learn how better to live inside their own heads.

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