Lisa Krueger’s Manny & Lo (1996) is an underrated gem of the independent film movement of the nineties. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular Manny, was only twelve when the film came out and already demonstrates her uncanny gifts as a serious dramatic artist. Manny & Lo also features an excellent soundtrack by John Lurie of The Lounge Lizards and Fishing With John fame. Although everyone involved in Manny & Lo contributes some of the best work of their careers, the film and all credit for its accomplishments belongs only to Lisa Krueger.
Lisa Krueger starts the film by channeling Days Of Heaven (1978) into the milieu of nineties suburbia only to shift genres into what is one of the most unorthodox and original coming of age stories that I have ever seen. Basically, the plot revolves around Manny and Lo’s (Aleksa Palladino) kidnapping of Elaine (Mary Kay Place) after the latter discovers that she is pregnant. The bulk of Manny & Lo focuses on the shift in power dynamics as the would-be hostage becomes surrogate mother to the two runaway foster kids.
Manny & Lo shouldn’t work as a serious character driven piece of drama. The premise is outlandish and the themes tempt a saccharine touch. But Lisa Krueger manages to pull it all off expertly. For one thing, Krueger resists the urge to write Manny’s dialogue as if she were some wunderkind with only profound things to say. Krueger also realizes that by setting a slow yet steady pace she allows performances (Mary Kay Place) and natural mannerisms (Scarlett Johansson) to breathe. The outcome of these two strategies is that the characters become fully realized, multidimensional beings rather than tired archetypes.
Lisa Krueger is not a visually stylized director but she can work wonders with actors. Mary Kay Place gives one of the greatest performances of her illustrious career under Krueger’s direction. Krueger’s eye is honed for those little gestures and glances that reveal the depth of emotional subtext. A shot will last twice as long in Krueger’s hands then it likely would with some other director helming the project. This is a quality, a gift, that few directors who got their start in the nineties possessed and immediately makes Manny & Lo something uniquely special.
Krueger’s film, with its priority on performance and characterization, does not attempt to offer a definitive statement on motherhood nor childhood. What Krueger does with Manny & Lo is far more mature and that is to merely examine just how blurred the line between the two really is. If anything Manny & Lo is a film that reassures the audience that it’s alright to have negative feelings about parenthood. Nothing about Manny & Lo is black and white, which is its greatest strength as a feminist work of art.