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Manny & Lo

(Lisa Krueger, USA, 1996)


 


There are days at the cinema when it seems that only those independent films which are the loudest, most garish and virile in style are going to receive any public attention.

Quieter films – and especially more naturalistic films – are becoming an endangered species. Which is why critics and filmgoers alike must rally around Manny & Lo.

In its focus on disaffected teenagers, and its special interest in the travails of women, Manny & Lo recalls Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996). But this is a much more finely judged and controlled piece of work, even if it lacks that touch of the grotesque exploited by Todd Solondz's film.

Manny (Scarlett Johansson) and Lo (Aleksa Palladino) are teenage sisters on the road, without parents or a home base. Like the young heroes of Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1948), Manny and Lo "were never properly introduced to the world we live in". Their fitful attempts at domesticity – such as when they break into empty display homes – seem like kitsch pastiches of the normal family ideal.

When Lo finally realises she is pregnant, the sisters decide to kidnap a helpful soul they spy working in a maternity store – thereby acquiring an instant, expert mother. For about a third of the film, Elaine (Mary Kay Place) is their reluctant hostage, and the trio engage in a furious, often hilarious battle of wits. But then Elaine turns out to be not exactly as normal as she pretends, either.

Debuting feature writer-director Lisa Krueger is an avowed fan of Terrence Malick's classic Badlands (1973). This influence is evident in the drolly understated voice-over narration by Manny, and in the way that the characters do not really progress or grow. Krueger wants us to observe, accept and reflect upon these people – not to follow them on the usual feel-good arc of redemption.

Krueger may also have been inspired by Bill Forsyth's remarkable Housekeeping (1987). That is one of the few, precious movies in which a family that is dysfunctional in every conventional social sense is presented without the slightest whiff of moral judgement.

Manny & Lo, like Housekeeping, teeters on the edge of being a sentimental lament for a long-lost, old-fashioned family unit. But its toughness, its bizarre humour and its constant element of surprise ensure that it is a perfectly modern and searching testament to contemporary experience.

© Adrian Martin January 1997


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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