Manny & Lo (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Manny & Lo, the debut feature from writer/director Lisa Krueger, is a wonderfully- textured comic fantasy about family life. With only a few missteps along the way, this film takes us on a deceptively complex journey of discovery into a world that is similar, yet different, from the one we travel through every day. For, although Krueger presents her characters as the human flotsam of modern-day life, there is a timeless, placeless quality to this story. Ultimately, it doesn't matter when or where Manny & Lo takes place, but how the characters' trajectories bring them together at their final destination.

Eleven-year old Amanda (or Manny, played by Scarlett Johansson) and sixteen-year old Laurel (or Lo, played by Aleksa Palladino) are sisters on-the-run. After the death of their mother, they were placed in separate foster homes, only to be reunited after Lo ran away and "so-called kidnapped" Manny from her substitute family. Together, the pair lives life on the road, watching out for state troopers who may have their description, stealing food from small convenience stores, sleeping in model homes, and checking the milk cartons to make sure that their pictures aren't on the "missing" panels.

Their unorthodox lifestyle is seriously disrupted, however, when Lo becomes pregnant. By the time she acknowledges that it's not just a few extra pounds, she's too far advanced for an abortion. Unwilling to turn herself in for medical care, but recognizing that she needs help, Lo decides to kidnap Elaine (Mary Kay Place), a "baby expert". With Manny's help, Lo uses a shotgun to encourage Elaine to accompany her to a deserted mountain cabin retreat. There, the three of them, captors and captive, await the baby's arrival while growing into a strange pseudo-family.

Each of the main characters in Manny & Lo is a loner in search of a place to belong. Despite her air of self-sufficiency and keen intellect, Manny wants nothing more than to have a mother. She collects photographs of other families, and, every night before going to sleep, sprays her sheets with Arid Extra Dry -- a scent she associates with her dead mother. Lo is equally emotionally needy, but conceals her pain and uncertainty with a show of false bravado. And, in her own way, Elaine is as much of an outsider as the two girls. Although she has cousins, nieces, and nephews, she has no immediate family, and her distant relatives could care less whether she disappears off the face of the earth. So, although the girls' relationship with Elaine starts out as a kidnapping, it develops into something more meaningful and intimate for them all, filling needs in each that they tried to keep hidden.

Another thing that Manny, Lo, and Elaine have in common is a strong capacity for self-deception. Each lives in a fantasy world where their own importance is heightened. Manny and Lo believe that they are wanted fugitives, but, as becomes apparent, no one notices their comings and goings, or even cares who they are. Likewise, Elaine is convinced that, once she is kidnapped, her friends and relatives will notice her absence and immediately mount search parties. No such thing happens.

The best parts of Manny & Lo are the quiet, character-driven scenes, when it's just the three women alone, exploring their new relationship and contemplating the future. A subplot involving the cabin's owner (Paul Guilfoyle) shows us something about how desperately Elaine wants to be part of Manny and Lo's life, but there are aspects of this sequence that strain the film's delicately-struck balance between reality and fantasy. While I didn't exactly mind this chunk of the story, it didn't seem as well-considered as the rest of the picture.

A sizable portion of Manny & Lo's success should be attributed to a trio of fine performances. Aleksa Palladino, appearing in her first major feature, finds the right blend of prickliness and vulnerability to make Lo a sympathetic character despite her streak of unpleasantness. Mary Kay Place essays Elaine as a complex individual who gradually realizes that her kidnapping is a blessing, not a curse, since it places her in a position where someone actually needs her. However, the real find in Manny & Lo is Scarlett Johansson, whose unaffected and thoroughly-engaging portrayal of Manny is so perfectly on-target that, while watching her, it's easy to forget that this is an actress playing a role.

There's something magical about the way Lisa Krueger's film transports us to its unique reality. There have been many films about family and belonging, but none with quite the same perspective as this one. Manny & Lo is always pleasant, never confrontational, and comes to a conclusion that is emotionally true. With its carefully-modulated combination of light comedy and drama, the film casts a gentle spell.

Manny & Lo (United States, 1996)

Director: Lisa Krueger
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Aleksa Palladino, Mary Kay Place
Screenplay: Lisa Krueger
Cinematography: Tom Krueger
Music: John Lurie
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1