In some ways Manic has the look of a low to very low budget indie. On the other hand, it has recognizable names in the cast, including Don Cheadle and Zooey Deschanel.

The movie is set in a psychiatric hospital for juveniles—basically a prison, since the inmates are there involuntarily. The youngest one we meet is just short of 13; the oldest is just short of 18. Cheadle is the doctor who seems to more or less run the institution, or at least the ward that is the focus of the movie. Much of the action takes place in discussion groups of the eight to ten kids on the ward that he chairs.

I did not react to this institution by being completely creeped out as I might have expected. In general, I have a visceral hatred of these places, a fear that may rise to the level of a phobia of coercive institutions that insist they are violating your autonomy to the extreme of imprisonment “for your own good.” But while I certainly wouldn’t want to be trapped in this place, I didn’t feel those usual emotions of horror about it, and the desire to escape which some of the inmates speak of didn’t trigger in me the same degree of sympathetic urgency it normally would.

I would guess that the aspects of it that made it not so nightmarish to me are among the least realistic elements of the film, though I don’t know. But Cheadle is a wise and devoted authority figure who mostly treats the kids with respect and addresses them as equals, and the kids—with exceptions—are supportive of each other. It’s a surprisingly humane and healthy place.

Most of the inmates don’t seem particularly “crazy.” A few extras fit more what I might expect to see in a psychiatric hospital, but most of the main characters seem more like people you’d encounter in a non-psychiatric juvenile prison.

But overall Manic never struck me as wildly unrealistic, as too “Hollywood.” There are things you can point to where it probably deviates from realism for dramatic effect, but not to an extreme that turned me off.

As far as how it differs from reality, never having been incarcerated in such a place I can only take educated guesses, but broadly speaking the people in this place strike me as being too genuine with each other. People speak their minds and express their emotions surprisingly freely in this film.

I picture people in a place like this in real life hiding a lot more, talking around things, etc. I would think it’s typical for the inmates to carefully choose what they do and say based on a strategy of telling the people who have the power to free them what they want to hear.

I also picture there being a lot more legalistic artificiality and political correctness, and that the staff members would speak and behave according to what they see as their predefined roles rather than as human beings.

But in this film, people mostly are real with each other, they interact as individuals rather than doing what they’re required to because they’re “on duty” (staff) or constantly being judged as to whether they deserve their freedom (inmates), and they’re willing to at least try to get into the nitty gritty of what really matters in life. That’s depressingly rare in life in general; I would think it would be considerably rarer in a coercive institution.

Again, there is also more dramatic action than would probably happen in real life. When you add up all the epiphanies, the breakthroughs, the deep friendships formed, the times people fall in love, the fatal or near-fatal fights, the escapes, and on and on, as much goes on here in a few weeks or months (I don’t think there’s enough evidence in the film to infer precisely the time frame, but I think that’s an accurate estimate) as I would guess happens in a real institution like this in 20 years or more.

But that never had me rolling my eyes or hating the movie. Given how well-made a movie it is, how well-acted it is from start to finish, that seemed like a modest enough degree of unreality to be forgivable.

Because the longer this movie went on, the more I cared about these kids, and Cheadle for that matter. The characters neither are too indistinct to keep straight, nor so simplistic as to be caricatures. Yes, you can put some of them in certain boxes—i.e., so-and-so is the bully of the group—but for the most part they’re complex individuals, which I appreciated.

You can make a case for any one of several of them—including Cheadle’s doctor character—being the most powerfully drawn, but the one that maybe reached me the most emotionally and that I’m guessing will stay with me the longest is the 12 year old Kenny, who is the cellmate of the main character Lyle.

He’s kind of big for his age, but for the most part looks and acts like a 12 year old, so you’re conscious that he’s younger than the others in this group. He is mostly withdrawn and at times refuses to talk entirely, though here and there he opens up in a limited way, especially with Lyle as they develop a sort of big brother-little brother relationship.

You’re able to gradually piece together some of his story. Apparently he was sexually abused by his stepfather. There is some indication that in at least a rudimentary way he is duplicating that behavior with younger children, as a reference is made to his having been transferred to this ward with older kids because he had “roaming hands” when he was with younger kids.

I believe he’s at least part Indian; his stepfather is Anglo. In maybe the most powerful scene in the movie, Cheadle brings the stepfather in to visit Kenny and to discuss his possibly being released. The stepfather is all artificial kindness and cheerfulness at first, but he can’t stay in character for more than a few moments and you quickly see what a creepy and scary temper he has. He’s furious with the institution and furious with his stepson for what he sees as the lack of progress the boy has made.

At the end of the meeting he and Kenny embrace, but again his temper gets the better of him and he squeezes him violently as he verbally lambasts him. (Or maybe the implication is that he’s holding him and groping him in some way, but it struck me as more violent rage than sexual.) They’re pulled apart and he’s thrown off the premises.

The most common issue for which these kids are incarcerated is apparently anger management, as a running theme of the film is how they react with violence to provocation. What’s particularly haunting about this scene with Kenny and his stepfather, though, is that it’s an exception to that. Instead of blowing up and retaliating when his stepfather inflicts his rage upon him, Kenny, as they’re being pulled apart, lets out a plaintive “I’m sorry Dad!” My heart went out to that poor kid.

But, yes, dealing with anger is a key element of the film. As Cheadle seeks to teach them, they’re not wrong to get angry—they generally genuinely are being wronged, sometimes in horrific ways, like Kenny—and it’s totally understandable that they would instinctively react with violence, retaliation, revenge, etc., but looking at things pragmatically, where has that gotten them? Has their violence solved the underlying problems? Has it put them in a better place in life?

To a limited extent, some of them would say their violence hasn’t been pointless or ineffective, in that it has served as a deterrent to their continued victimization. As Lyle succinctly puts it in explaining why he went after a guy with a baseball bat who was ridiculing him about his family problems, “He thought it was really funny. Now he doesn’t think it’s so funny.” But at a deeper level has it really addressed what is causing them pain, really contributed to their healing?

To Manic’s credit, Cheadle doesn’t heroically get through to all these kids. There’s halting progress here and there, but they’re damaged kids, in some cases severely damaged kids. They’re damaged at the beginning of the film, and they’re damaged at the end of the film. There are no miracles here.

But as I say, there’s a little progress, there’s a little growth. There’s hope.

Manic is a powerful little indie film. Solid recommendation.

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