Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Blood in the Children's Ward

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 16
Jordan Melamed (director), Manic


Young Lyle Jensen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) starts this movie already bloody. We never see what happened; we only see him, bandaged in a hospital gown, awaiting diagnosis for why he abruptly attacked another teenager. The doctor pronounces him prone to violent manic episodes, and with his mother’s assistance, has him involuntarily committed to a juvenile psychiatric ward. Among his fellow underage “crazies,” Lyle will either improve, or become trapped in his illness.

This strange, low-key movie, shot on a shoestring budget with mostly novice actors. Central actor Gordon-Levitt, a former child star, appeared in this film partly to kick-start a successful adult career. Don Cheadle, as Dr. Monroe, had nearly two decades of acting under his belt, but was still three years from his star-making roles in Crash and Hotel Rwanda. And this was only Zooey Deschanel’s third billed on-screen role. Most actors returned to anonymity when the production wrapped.

Despite the focus on Gordon-Levitt, Cheadle, and Deschanel, most of this movie is an ensemble drama. Peopled with young characters desperate to achieve adulthood on their own terms, and very few won-ups, it structurally interrogates how we define maturity, much less sanity. As the story develops, some characters clearly have damaged faculties and need formal treatment. But which characters actually need help, and what constitutes help, is forever challenged.

“Behind the wall,” Lyle gets partnered with pathologically withdrawn adolescent Kenny. The doctors hope that Lyle’s hyperkinetic extroversion will draw Kenny from his paralyzing shyness, and vice versa. The two slowly develop a grudging, fraternal relationship, but not without some struggle. Meanwhile, Lyle must come to grips with his fellow inpatients, including an agoraphobic, a nymphomaniac, a pathological fantasist, and beautiful but tightly constrained Tracy (Deschanel).

Cheadle, as resident psychologist Dr. Monroe, has his own unresolved issues, comically lampshaded in one scene. He feels trapped and underappreciated, desperately trying to convince pained youths to address questions many adults would flee. His charges are diagnosed mentally ill, but we gradually learn, many have deep-seated wounds predating anything inherent to their heads. What appears like violent, maladjusted behavior might be completely appropriate, where these kids came from.

All this plays against a dangerously conflicting background: these characters must either get better and get released, or turn 18 and get thrown out. Lyle struggles to build trust with other characters, only to see them leave. A handful see legal adulthood looming, without having addressed their underlying struggles. Adulthood, for these characters, may mean release, or imprisonment in a mental hell from which they can expect no release. No wonder several turn self-destructive.

Shot on low-def, broadcast-quality Betamax film, the standard for TV around the time of release, this movie has a documentary quality, accentuated by the sometimes jerky, handheld camera quality. We feel like we’re watching Lyle’s health struggles, his psychiatric evaluations, his group therapy sessions. This isn’t always easy: though this movie is mostly low-strung and talky, it has moments of dry comedy or sudden violence, and the screen image can have jerky, nausea inducing incidents that make Oliver Stone look easygoing.

Essentially, despite its star moments and its tightly wrapped storyline, director Melamed presents a slow-moving character drama, a cerebral enterprise focused on the collision between the characters’ inner struggles and the outer world’s unforgiving demands. As Freud observed nearly a century ago, adult society requires submission to certain rules, designed to protect one another from humans’ animal impulses. But damaged people struggle with these rules. If Lyle cannot acquiesce, he cannot become an adult. He may leave the ward, but he’ll never be an adult.

To its credit, the movie resists easy answers. Both giving in, and standing fast, would mean changing Lyle’s, and his friends’, inner nature. The final resolution suggests Lyle has split the difference, but we we wonder whether, and why, he’s really changed. One cannot undo such deep damage quickly, as even Lyle acknowledges. As he embraces the difficult journey, we watch him with deep dread, knowing he’ll re-fight the same battles many more times.

This movie never had a wide release. It played a handful of film festivals before going straight to DVD, presumably because the makers knew a slow-paced, cerebral character drama about mental illness had limited market potential. It made less box-office revenue than most big-studio films make in one theatre in one weekend. But its receipts reflect neither its critical buzz, nor its impact. This movie changes you. It makes you squirm, and in the final frames, it makes you ask why you squirmed.

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