A, B, C… Manhattan

Three eccentric, high-strung women, each facing a major identity crisis, are at the center of Iranian-born helmer Amir Naderi's A, B, C…Manhattan, the second segment of a planned New York trilogy, which began in 1993 with the well-received Manhattan by Numbers.

Lack of a conventionally engaging narrative and deliberate pacing that will be trying for mainstream audiences severely curtail picture's theatrical prospects, but it should easily travel the festival road and be presented in venues for more specialized and experimental fare.

Thematically, there is not much new in A, B, C…Manhattan, a funky, low-key, street-based “Lower East Side film” that revisits the same territory churned by many indie filmmakers, most recently by Matthew Harrison, and recalls in several respects Susan Seidelman's feature debut, Smithereens, which also centered on a conflicted woman. Spanning the course of one long pivotal day, the film interweaves the lives of three idiosyncratic women as they are about to make fateful decisions concerning their future existence.

Brief scenes, accompanied by black and white photos and voice-over narration, introduce the femmes and their unique attributes. Skinny and blonde, Colleen (Lucy Knight), 25, is a single mother who wants to be a photographer, but can't support her young daughter, Stella (Maisy Hughes). Red-haired Casey (Erin Norris), 18, is looking for her missing dog, which was stolen by her former b.f., and the lesbian lover who had dumped her. Music is the passion of the 22-year-old Kate (Sarah), who's determined to terminate her relationship with Stevie (Nikolai Voloshuk) and begin a more independent life.

All three femmes are deeply confused and lost, spending their time wandering aimlessly in the streets of Alphabet City (hence the title). Though the narrative starts with the trio's meeting–Kate is the new roommate in the flat shared by Colleen and Casey–for the most part, Naderi observes his protagonists as they go about their business separately, with each on the brink of alienation.

Periodically, the women congregate in the hood's local bar, where secondary characters are introduced, such as the lonely and elderly Roz (Stella Rose), or barfly Lewis (Arnie Charnik), a painter by aspiration. But this milieu, the place where Colleen is going to hand Stella over to her new adoptive parents, has a different flavor and purpose from the “cinematic bars” seen in other quintessential New York movies by Cassavetes or even Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge.

The text, a product of collaboration (and some improvisation) among Naderi, Ben Edlund, Jessica Gohlike and others, is slight, haphazard and often frustrating. However, what renders Naderi's film its distinctive feel is its visual strategy: the uninterrupted long takes that tracks the women, the always-restless mobile camera, the bold framing, the calculated rhythm. For instance, deviating from the norm, the adoption scene is shot from a distance, sans dialogue or sound, observing Colleen from inside the bar as she communicates with the new parents.

A, B, C…Manhattan is the kind of film in which style is inseparable from substance–or rather, a film in which style is contents. Rather admirably, Naderi avoids melodrama and refuses to judge his protagonists, supplying them with plenty of space (both geographically and emotionally) to maneuver and find themselves. At the same time, made by a male who's an outsider (Naderi belongs to Iran's first wave of directors), the film seldom persuades that its director really understands his women's complex psyche and soul. Though providing an intermittently intriguing gaze, pic lacks the tender intimacy and profound insight that prevail in the work of other male directors centering on women, most notably Robert Altman's Three Women and Victor Nunez' Ruby in Paradise.

Cast

Colleen…….Lucy Knight
Kacey………Erin Norris
Kate…………Sara Paul
Stella…….Maisy Hughes
Stevie…Nikolai Voloshuk
Janet……Rebecca Nelson
Louis…….Arnie Charnik
Roz………..Stella Rose