"Moralists have no place in an art gallery." That quote, by the Chinese novelist Han Suyin, appears writ large, both literally and figuratively, near the end of The Shape of Things, but its implications cast a specter over the entire film. By invoking Han's words, LaBute—no stranger to censors' plaster fig leafs—isn't issuing a knee-jerk reaction against his critics (as some will suggest), but rather articulating a challenge to both himself and his audience. Can there be art without humanity? Or, more pointedly, humanity without artists like LaBute to take us through the lower depths? To borrow the words of LaBute's own screenplay, only indifference is suspect.
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The Shape of Things was first performed as a play—in London and then New York—by the same four actors who have rather marvelously re-created their characters for the film. And indeed, the movie, shot briskly over 19 days, has the charge of live performance, rehearsed to the point of near perfection—but not fatigue—like the classic theater-film hybrids of Louis Malle and Andre Gregory. Conversely, Jordan Melamed's debut film, Manic, set in a juvenile mental institution, has all the uncertainties of a first run-through. A sort-of Boy, Interrupted, it's notable for its commitment to a grim scenario and for the notion of showing us a less slaphappy side of adolescence than all those fresh-baked American Lies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as a suburban high schooler committed for anger-management therapy after bashing in a classmate's head with a baseball bat) and Don Cheadle (as the honey-voiced resident psychologist) contribute heroic performances. The wonderful Zooey Deschanel is here, too, confronting her low self-esteem and falling for Levitt's character in a very shallow role that feels like a betrayal of her considerable acting gifts. Meanwhile, Manic never clearly defines the machine that its malcontent characters—who also include a girl with a self-tattooed anarchy symbol on her thigh and another who has clearly overdosed at the black-makeup counter—rage against, or overcomes its deeply embedded psycho-ward-movie clichés.