A singularly quirky, utterly original sensibility is displayed by writer-director Lisa Krueger in her feature debut, Manny & Lo, a modern fairy tale in which three misfits establish a unique bond that defies traditional definitions.
Cast of offbeat satire lacks names, but with shrewd marketing Sony Classics can do marvels, reaching way beyond the arthouse crowd that embraced last year’s equally idiosyncratic indie, Spanking the Monkey, which resembles Krueger’s new film and was also produced by Dean Silvers.
A road comedy that stops moving after the first reel, juvenile kidnappers who have no idea what they’re doing, a squeaky-clean suburban matron who holds her own “dark” secret–and much more–are some of the narrative threads of Manny & Lo, a pointedly-written, darkly-toned comedy that turns every conventional idea, including what constitutes a family, on its head.
Yarn begins with a visually stunning scene: Two girls wake up from a good night sleep on a meticulously mowed grass decorating a row of uniformly looking houses. They are Amanda, nicknamed Manny (Scarlett Johansson), who’s 11, and Laurel, or Lo (Aleksa Palladino), 16, runaway sisters who have escaped from foster homes and are now on the road, living from hand to mouth while spending their nights at various model homes.
Unexpected trouble sets the girls’ adventure on a surprising detour, leading them to a baby store, where they encounter Elaine (Mary Kay Place), a bizarre shop clerk, as she demonstrates new baby toys. The duo, who spend a good deal of their time bickering and needling each other, decide to kidnap Elaine and move into an isolated house in the woods.
Held up hostage, Elaine’s feet are tied, but she’s allowed to move around the house to perform some necessary chores, like cooking for the girls. When Elaine finds out that Lo is in advanced pregnancy, she begins to dispense all kinds of maternal advice. Gradually, the sisters find themselves listening to her and even taking note of her supposedly expert wisdom.
Unfortunately, film’s second drags a little longer than necessary (a trimming would help here). Not much is happening dramatically, and the earlier smoother flow of developments is arrested. Director Krueger fills up the time with keen observations about how the three very different femmes react to tense situations and claustrophobic ambience. Hence, when Elaine is forced to write a note that explains her absence from the store (which is owned by her matter-of-fact niece Connie), she says in a characteristically deadpan manner: “I do not give in to criminals and I do not take vacations. Ever.”
Despite the imaginative set-up and the original sensibility at work, ultimately Many & Lo suffers from a slight, rather contrived narrative and from the lack of secondary characters that would have made the story richer and more complicated. Nonetheless, somehow miraculously, the film gathers much needed energy and drive in its last reel, when the three women finally leave the house. In this section, helmer actually comes up with inventive twists and turns that lead to a most gratifying denouement.
It’s easy to forgive Manny & Lo’s shortcomings as for the most part, it’s a cleverly constructed tale that entertains new ideas about female friendship and bonding. One of the story’s comic–and ironic–highlights is the realization, by all three characters, that they’re really social misfits, loners whom nobody will ever miss–or look for.
Recently, several American movies have challenged common definitions of what constitutes a family, but helmer Krueger carries her film’s modernist ideology one step further, by showing how unpleasant encounters, that are not a matter of choice, can sometimes yield beneficial results to all concerned. In this fairy tale, Elaine turns out to be a “good” witch, a middle-aged woman forced to acknowledge that she might need the girls as much–and possibly more–as they need her.
The film’s greatest asset is the terrific chemistry between Palladino, who combines the necessary outward toughness with inward vulnerability and Johansson, who effortlessly mixes childish naivete with subtle intelligence. The quirky tone of Johansson’s voice-over narration bears resemblance to Linda Manz’ droll commentary in Days of Heaven–her unhampered, off-the-wall remarks are funny and sad at the same time. Place, usually a reliable pro, is no more than O.K., possibly a result of the text, which consists of one-liners that are not as witty or spontaneous as those uttered by the unrestrained siblings.
Tech credits, particularly crisp and often lyrical lensing by Tom Krueger (who’s the director’s brother), and John Lurie’s evocative music contribute considerably to the film’s overall impact.
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Pope Entertainment Group and Klaus Volkenborn presentation of a Silvers/Hecht production. Produced by Dean Silvers and Marlen Hecht. Executive producers, Pope Entertainment Group, Klaus Volkenborn. Directed, written by Lisa Krueger. Camera (Technicolor), Tom Krueger; editor, Colleen Sharp; music, John Lurie; production design, Sharon Lomofsky; set decoration, Dina Goldman; costume design, Jennifer Parker; sound, Irin Straus; associate producer, Gary Kauffman; assistant director, Wendy Jo Cohen; casting, Ellen Parks. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 26, l996. Running time: 90 min.
Elaine…….Mary Kay Place