MANNY AND LO (1996) ***
They take to the road, in a purposefully vague (albeit contemporary) period, and anonymous locations (New Jersey and upstate New York in reality), sleeping in the car, or outdoors, or in model homes they break into. They steal gas, shoplift food, but never behave defiantly.
The movie is the feature debut of Lisa Krueger who has an interesting background in film, academic in Berkeley and Paris, practical, as a Jill-of-all-trades, in New York and elsewhere. She made a short, "Best Offer" with brother Tom as cinematographer and brother Matthew as production designer. It premiered at the 1993 Sundance Festival, won awards in San Francisco, Chicago, Oberhausen and other festivals. "Manny and Lo" was carefully developed at the Sundance Institute. All this means to me that Ms. Krueger goes well beyond the casual, new independent filmmaker, that her success with "Manny and Lo" is no flash in the pan.
Funny what thoughts come into a film-buff's mind while watching pictures. Manny's narrating of parts of the this film recalled, in a different way, the scratchy, working class-voiced narration of Linda Manz (whatever became of her?) in the masterful "Days of Heaven" (1978)--but the resemblances stop there between that spectacular fresco and the small budget, essentially three-character "M & L."
There is solid originality in "Manny and Lo," along with a quiet way of presenting the girls' quandaries. Manny, inside a model home (desirable yet soulless) swipes mantelpiece photos of families. This clear, unspoken wish for a normal life may be obvious but is not pat. Obvious too, and on the forced side, is when the sisters play, in ta vacation house they invade, a rather incongruous home video labeled "Welcome to Tiffany" (what is it doing there?), which turns out to be the record of a baby's birth.
Lo, who keeps gaining weight and, with bad faith, blames it on junk food, is in a state of advanced pregnancy. This leads the sisters to an illogical but eloquent visit to a maternity store. The temporary salesperson, Elaine, is a weird, authoritarian, know-it-all, "I'm never wrong," figure full of advice on everything. The girls abduct her to an empty vacation cabin and shackle her. Why? Because, mixed up and lost, they need help with the pregnancy.
A bit forced is when, in that vacation house, the sisters play a video they found, labeled "Welcome to Tiffany," which just happens to be the record of a baby's birth. But this is just a small fly in the ointment of the plot.
While it is obvious that the pregnancy is most unwelcome by Lo, in one of the film's major and better ambiguities this "I'm my own boss" young lady, while putting up a strong front, is badly in need of a mother figure. Confused, she doesn't seem to know which evil is the lesser, having the baby or aborting it.
Elaine gradually supplies the missing link, the maternal presence. Her odd personality hides a mysterious past, her authoritative character hides her own insecurities and wounds. Mary Kay Place regularly steals the show. Now as a prisoner who goes on hunger strikes, now wobbling on her tied up feet, preparing healthy meals for the trio, serving... The girls may think she is a real nurse, but is she, or does she have the experience without the title?
Elaine goes through small but significant changes, ever forceful but never transformed into a sentimental or overtly appealing movie cliche.
Complicitous bonding between Elaine and Manny forms gradually, sometimes amusingly, sometimes with restrained pathos. It will expand quite late into rapport between ever-suspicious Lo and kooky Elaine. The climaxes is not so much a closure as a condition curative for all concerned.
I will not get into the details, whose accumulation makes up the movie. Some miniature episodes seem throw-away, irrelevant. Some red herrings are included--at one point, late in the film, a visitor and his car even conjured up "Psycho" for me. Even so, the parts fit well together, their mix of semi-violence and semi-sweetness has a consistent tone of a musical scale in a minor key.
In this not-so-hidden but cool paean to maternity, family, roots and women supporting one another, it is the three characters' characterizations that carry the load. The dialogue is not especially interesting, arguments and dialectics are noticeably absent. But it is precisely this combination of what is done and what is unspoken that gives the film a look and feel all its own.
No minor virtues are the good music by John Lurie and the picture's length. Its hour-and-a-half qualifies it for inclusion in the Golden Book of the famous BBNMM Society, "Bring Back the Ninety Minute Movie."
P.S. Thanks to Scott Renshaw for catching a factual error in my first online version of this review.