This documentary-style film about teenagers in a mental hospital has enough sincerity to make up for whatever it lacks in professionalism or originality. It is well worth watching with the teenagers in your life.
The story is traditional,following the classic model of hospital-based stories from “David and Lisa,” to “Clean and Sober,” “28 Days,” and “Girl, Interrupted,” along with dozens of made-for-TV-movies. We focus on one patient, Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of television’s “Third Rock from the Sun”). A court sentenced Lyle to the facility because he beat a fellow student with a baseball bat. At first, he is angry and uncooperative. But as he listens to a sympathetic doctor (Don Cheadle) and observes the other patients, he begins to allow himself to be open to acknowledging their feelings and his own.
Shooting on digital video gives the film a spareness and immediacy that works well with its subject. The writers and first-time director Jordan Melamed worked with the actors to develop their characters through improvisation and worked with psychologists and patients to ensure authenticity. The cast includes some former residents of juvenile mental facilities. The portrayals are all so natural and deeply felt that there are moments when it does not even feel like a documentary movie; it feels like we are watching something that is happening right now. Co-screenwriter Michael Bacall plays Chad, a bi-polar kid who is Lyle’s first friend. Zooey Deschanel is the fragile Tracey, Cody Lightning is the shy Kenny, Elden Henson is the angry Michael, and Cheadle is the doctor who has to find a way to make all of them feel accepted for who they are while encouraging them to change. All create characters who are distinct and believable.
The camera work feels amateurish at first until it becomes clear that it is intentional. Shaky, off-center shots replicate the fragile reality of the characters. As the movie continues and Lyle is able to encompass a psychological and metaphorical larger picture, the camera pulls back to give us the bigger picture as well. The final shot, the first real long shot we see in the movie, is very moving.
The kids in the Northwood Mental Institution are not that different from other teenagers. They feel the injustices of the world, especially those affecting them, very passionately. Their feelings overwhelm them. They are desperate for the love and approval of their families and angry because they do not have it. They are terrified of allowing themselves to be vulnerable. They fight any intimacy. They do not want to understand anyone else’s feelings because they might have to understand their own.
Teens who see this movie might feel that the biggest difference between the kids in the hospital and the people they know is not that they are any healthier, just luckier. And that’s a very good starting point for a talk with friends or family about handling emotions and responding to loss, injustice, and tragedy. One strength of the movie is the way it avoids an “aha” moment — there is never a scene where a patient suddenly remembers some childhood trauma and has a transforming epiphany. There is just a doctor who is a real human being with his own frustrations and flaws. He admits that Lyle may carry his rage forever but shows him that he can find a better way to handle it.
Parents should know that the movie has non-stop four-letter words. There are sexual references, including child molestation and rape. There is some violence, including one brief graphic scene that is very brutal. The movie has very strong minority characters and strong bonds between characters of different races.
Families who see this movie should talk about how they handle their angry impulses and what it is that gives their lives meaning. Does it help to have someone say “I’m sorry” even if it isn’t the one responsible? Does it help to be the one who says “I’m sorry?”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “David and Lisa,” showing how dramatically our understanding of mental illness has changed. They will also appreciate the understanding psychiatrists of “Captain Newman, MD.,” “Antwone Fisher,” and “The Three Faces of Eve.”