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Sony Picture Classics presents
Manny and Lo (1996)

Manny: What if we were in Italy? That would make us Italian, right? Or we could be French girls living in Italy, just enjoying the food or the lifestyle...
Lo: Yeah, except we're in someone else's lawn and we're starving, so hurry up.

- Scarlett Johansson, Aleksa Palladino

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: January 18, 2004

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Aleksa Palladino, Mary Kay Place
Director: Lisa Krueger

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: R for language
Run Time: 01h:27m:55s
Release Date: January 20, 2004
UPC: 043396009875
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- BC+B- D

DVD Review

In this uncertain day and age, the definition of "family" continues to broaden. Times of war, economic strife and social unrest often throw strangers together, and inspire lasting, meaningful unions. Manny and Lo, Lisa Krueger's off-kilter comedy-drama, takes that idea to the extreme, as it depicts a truly unconventional family unit, spawned not by mutual affection and consent, but—of all things—a kidnapping.

No, this isn't the Patty Hearst story, although the victim's sympathy with her captors' plight does indeed forge the relationship. On the contrary, it's a very simple tale of two young sisters on the run—sweet-tempered, 11-year-old Manny (Scarlett Johansson) and sour, hormone-enraged, 16-year-old Lo (Aleksa Palladino). After their alcoholic mother dies, the destitute girls are shuttled off to less-than-perfect foster homes, but manage to escape their domestic hells and reunite. From then on, they aimlessly roam the community in their mother's broken-down station wagon, dodging cops, stealing food from convenience stores, and sleeping in a builder's model home. All the while, they follow Lo's #1 rule: "Keep moving and you won't get nailed."

It's hardly a life, but it's about to get worse. When Manny notices her sister packing on a few extra pounds, Lo blames it on their junk food diet. But it soon becomes apparent a baby is on the way, and when Lo inquires about an abortion, a kindly health care worker takes one look at her ballooning waistline and turns her down flat. At first, the girls try to prepare for the big event themselves, but the usually tough, independent Lo quickly realizes childbirth is one problem she can't tackle alone. Harsh times call for drastic measures, so while shopping in a baby boutique, the sisters spy frumpy Elaine (Mary Kay Place), a curt, know-it-all clerk who seems to be a walking encyclopedia of baby knowledge—and the perfect choice for Lo's maternity savior. They return to the shop at closing time and kidnap Elaine at gunpoint, then cart her off to their current hideout, an abandoned woodland cabin miles from the nearest main road.

The frightened yet stubborn Elaine initially adopts a defiant attitude. She refuses all food (of course, she's only offered Lucky Charms) and talks about her impending rescue by her vast network of sure-to-be-frantic family and friends. But as considerable time goes by and no one comes to claim her, Elaine begins to wonder whether anyone misses or cares for her at all. Meanwhile, Lo's delivery date draws near, making Elaine feel needed for the first time in her life. She cooks, cares for, and counsels the girls, who begin to form a tenuous attachment to this unlikely surrogate mother.

The blurb on the disc's packaging terms Manny and Lo a "juvenile version of Thelma and Louise," and although parallels can be drawn, Krueger's film possesses a much lighter feel and more depth. Still, there's really no story, just a situation, which works both for and against the movie. The good news is the lack of plot allows us to focus more intently on the characters, so we can savor nuances and moods, while the bad news is we often crave more than that, hoping the drama will heat up and rivet our attention, rather than continually plod along. Unfortunately, it never really does.

Krueger (who also wrote the script) peppers her quirky, sporadically engaging character studies with some offbeat situations and amusing bits, but the end result seems flat and detached. Such an uncompromising style is typical of independent films, and I appreciate Krueger's courage to go against the grain. But the deathly slow pacing makes it difficult to stay involved in the drama, despite the film's strong, meaningful statements about families and relationships.

While it's easy to quibble about the movie's tone, there's no gray area clouding the performances. All three actresses contribute finely tuned portrayals, with Place a particular standout as the grating, prim, but ultimately maternal Elaine. Rarely is Place offered a leading role, and though her supporting work perks up many a forgettable feature, it's nice to see her flesh out a more substantial character. Johansson and Palladino create a believable sisterly bond, as they bait, protect, and honor each other, while trying to survive the cruddy hand they've been dealt. Their outer strength masks an inner vulnerability that's used sparingly but effectively by Krueger.

Manny and Lo is well directed, well acted, and possesses a lovely visual style, but it didn't move me like I expected and hoped. Many might consider this intimate film a hidden gem, but it left me strangely cold.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The film possesses a typical indie look, with medium grain, soft colors, and a slight, hazy pallor predominating. Clarity is fine during close-ups, but long shots (especially those with busy backgrounds) don't fare as well. Print defects are largely absent, but one or two whoppers jarringly intrude.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Surround track meets expectations, but the dialogue-heavy film gives it little chance to shine. Conversations, many of which are softly spoken, are always easy to understand, and John Lurie's simple music score comes through cleanly. Few ambient effects are employed, so directionality is sketchy at best.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring All the Real Girls, Masked and Anonymous, My Life Without Me
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Three trailers for other Sony Classics are the only extras offered.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Despite realistic performances, assured direction, and some beautiful moments, Manny and Lo never quite picks up the desired steam. Its thin story and overly deliberate pacing keeps this offbeat comedy-drama from reaching the heights it should have attained. Fans of quirky, independent films will surely want to check this one out, but those with more mainstream taste should steer clear.


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