Friday August 2, 1996

     Even at the bare-bones level, film is such a cumbersome art, so dependent on mechanics, logistics and throngs of people, that it's a surprise and a pleasure to discover a new writer-director capable of almost casually bending it all to his or her will.
     Lisa Krueger is that kind of a filmmaker. Her "Manny & Lo" is an unapologetically small but wholly original movie, warm-hearted but not precious, and possessed of a gently wacky sensibility. Without seeming to be trying, Krueger insists we see the world her plucky and caring way.
     Basically a three-character drama, "Manny & Lo" begins with the sisters of the title. Sent to separate foster homes after their mother's death, they've run away and reunited for a tenuous life on the road.
     "The No. 1 rule is keep moving and you won't get nailed," says 16-year-old Laurel (Aleksa Palladino), who goes by Lo. Surly, mistrustful, quick to take offense, Lo is petulance personified, a not very bright young woman who thinks she's got everything figured out.
     Eleven-year-old Amanda, Manny for short (Scarlett Johansson), is Lo's opposite number. A wise soul in a young body, she is serious and responsible, watchful where Lo is oblivious. Manny is the one who notices, while Lo tries stubbornly to ignore it, that her older sister is pregnant.
     Up to now the two girls have lived on what they could shoplift from convenience stores with the help of a gigantic Cheerios box and slept by breaking into furnished model homes. But Lo's pregnancy changes everything.
     First the girls stop roaming and move into a temporarily unoccupied vacation home deep in the woods (one of several touches that give the film something of a fairy-tale feeling). Then, intent on finding a reliable book on pregnancy, they stumble into Connie's Baby Connection and the redoubtable Elaine (Mary Kay Place).
     A prim and precise pregnancy know-it-all whose favorite phrase is "I've never been wrong once," Elaine astounds the girls with an extensive knowledge of babies that extends from which color sleepwear they should wear to the correct way to rock a cradle (head to toe, not side to side, if you must know).
     Rather than simply ask questions, these two baby-fat desperadoes decide to kidnap Elaine, nurse's uniform and all, and force her to assist with the coming child. But like the kidnappers in O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief," the girls find Elaine to be more than they bargained for.
     Though the film nicely delineates the parallel comradeship and independence of the two sisters, "Manny & Lo" really pulls into focus with Elaine's arrival. As willful as Lo at her worst, proclaiming with wounded pride, "I do not give in to criminals," Elaine, much to the girls' amazement, turns out to be just as off the charts as they are.
     And, though everyone is too preoccupied to notice at first, something else unites Manny and Lo and Elaine. Unresolved personal issues, the need to grow up and the thwarted desire to be part of a family unit all combine to put these three into eccentric comic situations none of them could have imagined on their own.
     Best known for her Emmy-winning work on TV's "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," Place has numerous feature credits, but her gift for mock-dignified comedy has rarely been so well used. As the only adult with major screen time, her role is critical and she handles it adroitly and with a terrific amount of style.
     Writer-director Krueger's gift is for the unexpected, for creating people and situations that are just a notch off normal, and it's often visible in the film's details. When we watch Manny spray her bed with Right Guard because it reminds her of her mother, or see Lo practicing for her dream job of stewardess by walking on her sister's back while holding a tray, we know we are seeing a movie nobody else could have come up with, and that is a wonderful thing.


Manny and Lo, 1996. R, for language. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Lisa Krueger. Producers Dean Silvers & Marlen Hecht. Executive producers Pope Entertainment Group, Klaus Volkenborn. Screenplay Lisa Krueger. Cinematographer Tom Krueger. Editor Colleen Sharp. Costumes Jennifer Parker. Music John Lurie. Production design Sharon Lomofsky. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Mary Kay Place as Elaine. Scarlett Johansson as Amanda (Manny). Aleksa Palladino as Laurel (Lo). Paul Guilfoyle as Mr. Humphreys. Glenn Fitzgerald as Joey. Cameron Boyd as Chuck.