Girl stuff

It's hard to decide which we hear more often: that there are no good roles for women in commercial American cinema, or that this--fill in current calendar year--is The Year of the Woman in film. Whatever the case, there's usually a self-serving public-relations motive lurking behind these proclamations. The women who have complained loudest about a paucity of female roles--stars such as Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Sigourney Weaver--often are among the busiest performers. They're actually complaining that salaries aren't comparably astronomical for women--specifically, them. (The wage gap between prestigious male and female stars is indeed wide.)

On the other hand, those perennial Year of the Woman declarations by organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have the stench of overcompensation about them. The Hollywood studio system has come to rely almost exclusively on comedies and action thrillers for its survival, the demographic targets for which--fairly or unfairly--are overwhelmingly male. Women often find themselves in the role of glorified coffee server when cast in the blockbusters.

Streep, Pfeiffer, and Weaver have ignored the opportunities presented by "indie" companies like Miramax, Fine Line, and Gramercy, among others. While most of these companies are in fact owned by gigantic media monoliths, the myth of the "independent film" still burns bright enough to send them scurrying for fresh scripts, first-time directors, and decidedly noncommercial themes. Not since the birth of the American cinema has it been so easy for a hard-working, committed, connected young filmmaker to see his or her vision projected on a big screen.

And if women aren't holding their own with the likes of Schwarzenegger and Willis, they are popping up in front of and behind the indie camera in record number. Hold your breath for another of those obnoxious Year of the Woman declarations, with a twist: Cast an eye over the last eight months, and 1996 could arguably be dubbed The Year of the Girl. Forget taking your daughter to work; if you want her to see a stunning variety of peers confronting all sorts of troubles, take her to the movies. This year has seen Welcome to the Dollhouse, Harriet the Spy (created with help from a major studio; gadzooks!), Foxfire (another "little" film helped by a big studio), Girlstown (as yet unreleased in Dallas), The Spitfire Grill (granted, the heroine has already had her period, but she's still young), and now Lisa Krueger's Manny and Lo. All of them have portrayed, with varying degrees of sentimentality and success, young women struggling to forge their identities in a hostile world.

Manny and Lo is perhaps the most defiantly "female" of all these movies, when you consider its daring proposition--that motherhood may be a biological option for women, but it is by no means destiny; and, moreover, can be disastrous for a woman when treated as such. The film brushes against so many complex, impressive topics that you wish first-time writer-director Lisa Krueger had dropped the silly contrivances of her "fairy tale" and unashamedly tangoed with the subject matter. As it happens, Manny and Lo delivers a few inspired moments, but is finally smothered by the playful comic quality for which Krueger strains.

The title characters are sisters--11-year-old Amanda (Scarlett Johansson) and 15-year-old Laurel (Aleksa Palladino). "Manny" is the smart, dreamy, passive one who lets herself be kidnapped from her foster home by the beer-drinking, tough-talking, touchingly vulnerable "Lo" after their mother has died. The pair roams the highways and back roads of New York state in a beat-up station wagon, stealing junk food and gasoline and breaking into vacation houses and suburban model homes for a little bed rest. Lo is the "boss" mostly because Manny lets her be, but she's a horrible decision maker and spends a long time denying what finally cannot be ignored--she's pregnant.

Terrified of her baby's imminent delivery, Lo kidnaps a prissy maternity shop employee named Elaine (Mary Kay Place) and detains her in a sprawling, abandoned country home to await the birth. The sisters have chosen Elaine because she strolls around the shop in a nurse's uniform, berating expectant female customers with a smug "wisdom" about child-rearing that's suspicious to everyone but Manny and Lo. As the three females get to know each other in the confines of their lush hideout, the girls discover that this middle-age woman shares their sense of desperation, dislocation, and desire for a nurturing family.

Ultimately, the film veers off into a rather lame subplot in which Elaine takes a hostage for herself. Here the conflict between the story Lisa Krueger wants to tell and the style in which she's chosen to tell it becomes extremely distracting. Krueger proves she has a solid, if conservative, sense of pace; she guides her actors through some low-key, naturalistic performances, and her eye for the sights seen by a drifter has a keen grittiness to it. But those elements combine in Manny and Lo to make the more far-fetched ingredients of the story feel jarring and, ultimately, rather dopey. After a while, you feel like you're watching a farce that's been filmed using documentary techniques. There's no heightened sense of lunacy about these lunatics, no fantastic flavor to their rather fantastic exploits, and the finale is a wish-fulfillment fantasy designed to reward all three for their protracted loneliness. It's all too much to swallow from what is, at heart, a modest little character study.

Manny and Lo is almost worth the bumpy ride to watch Mary Kay Place whip up a gourmet, comic-poignant concoction named Elaine. Best known for her Emmy-winning role as the country crooner Loretta Haggers in the TV show Mary Hartman, Marty Hartman, and as the baby-desperate wife in The Big Chill, Place is also an accomplished writer and director. In Manny and Lo, she creates one of the most full-blooded eccentrics to command a movie screen in 1996. Elaine is a childless single woman with a troubled past that goes unspecified; the sad-eyed dignity and well-intentioned bossiness with which Place renders Elaine makes details of the character's young adulthood superfluous. (We are encouraged to suspect she has spent some time institutionalized.) She makes the woman heart-breaking and inspiring all at once.

Remember, too, that filmmaker Lisa Krueger played a decisive hand in creating this wondrous character. Manny and Lo isn't a failure so much as a misguided first effort by a woman who has brought a startling sense of characterization to the tale. All three roles are sympathetic and sharply detailed; it's some of the decisions they make to advance Krueger's themes that stretch credibility. Though ultimately overwhelmed by its misplaced playfulness, Manny and Lo corrals for our viewing pleasure some very memorable lost souls.

Manny and Lo. Sony Pictures Classics. Scarlett Johansson, Aleksa Palladino, Mary Kay Place. Written and directed by Lisa Krueger. Opens August 30.


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