With a sun-spotted approach evoking equal parts Dogme 95 and Go Ask Alice 73, first-time director Jordan Melamed's languishing 2001 Sundance-screened debut dutifully updates the plotless life-in-institution film to account for recent developments in rap-metal. Manic's milieu is a lockdown, pill-policed juvie detention center housing a supervised and therapized jumble of violent and sexual offenders, traumatized abusees, and recent-onset schizophrenics. At times, especially when soft talk/big stick counselor Don Cheadle is pressed into preacher mode, the mood gets Sipowicz-style homiletic. But often the script (co-written by Michael Bacall, who plays sardonic bipolar rich kid Chad) rings clear with mouths-of-babes declamations that all pained kids spew before downing adulthood's suck-it-up Kool-Aid.
Third Rock-er Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives central bad boy Lyle the terse aggro-stoicism of the protag in Dennis Cooper's My Loose Thread. Lyle's poker face masks a neuro-emotional mess of shorting splitters and thrashing, rain-downed power lines. While Gordon-Levitt leans hard on an overcompensatory Timberlake scowl, he's kept real by the rest of the ensemble, including Zooey Deschanel (shy, nightmare-fatigued Tracy), Cody Lightning (damaged Kenny), and Elden Henson (insecure Aryan-gangsta Michael). Trumped up, drum'n'bass-backed suspense surrounding possible escapes and the requisite bathroom showdown are balanced by the fresh kinesis of a group Soulfly flail and a great summary snap from Chad to Lyle: "I'm gonna blow it? Blow what? In 60 years I'll be dead and so will you."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.