Manny & Lo
1996, R, 89 min. Directed by Lisa Krueger. Starring Mary Kay Place, Scarlett Johansson, Aleksa Palladino, Paul Guilfoyle.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 20, 1996
Families, as we all know, are not always planned. Sometimes they're forged from the darnedest circumstances, neither random or plotted, and definitely not genetic. For the two teenage sisters in Manny & Lo, the so-called family ties are not simply the metaphorical kind; their family ties involve, quite literally, bondage and kidnapping. After the death of their mother, 16-year-old Manny (Johansson) and her 11-year-old sister Lo (Palladino) run away from separate foster homes and embark on a life on the road. They figure that a life together of constant motion would be far better than any upbringing that strangers might be able to provide. At night, they seek shelter in model homes, where Manny practices her airline stewardess posture and spiel (her dream vocation) and Lo sprays the linens with Arrid deodorant (her dead mother's scent) before bedding down for sleep. They travel from town to town, shoplifting food from grocery stores (pausing to examine milk cartons for pictures of themselves) and surviving by some kind of naïve grace and determination. Thus, when Manny finds herself pregnant (a fact which she manages to avoid acknowledging until into her third trimester), the two girls confront the situation with the same pluck and ingenuity that has sustained them to that point. While visiting a baby store, the sisters take a shine to the sales clerk Elaine (Place), a self-proclaimed know-it-all about everything related to babies and motherhood. Elaine is dressed in a nurse's uniform and dispenses unsolicited baby advice to anyone within earshot. To the girls, Elaine is clearly the most desirable commodity in the store, so in the same way in which they've satisfied all their other physical needs, they steal Elaine from the store -- except with human beings, the crime is kidnapping, not theft. The sisters and their prisoner take up residence in a vacant house in the woods, where it gradually becomes clear that Elaine is not precisely the person she presents herself as being. Yet, gradually, though Elaine's feet are kept bound and she continues to refer to the girls as “captors,” an odd sort of equilibrium and equanimity emerge. In Manny & Lo, we find three lovely character portraits: Johansson's Manny, a bold yet fearful adolescent on the verge of an unwanted adulthood; Palladino's Lo, the narrator of the story, a mature-beyond-her-years little kid whose youth is her protective shield; and Place's Elaine, a simultaneously sad and humorous character whose life begins a new chapter after it has seemingly passed her by. An understated movie that, in turns, is funny and heart-breaking and uplifting, Manny & Lo is a work that burrows under your skin and makes you impatient for the next project from first-time feature filmmaker Lisa Krueger.