Three eccentric, high-strung women, each facing an identity crisis, are at the center of Iranian-born helmer Amir Naderi’s “A, B, C … Manhattan,” the second segment of a planned New York trilogy, which began in 1993 with the well-received “Manhattan by Numbers.” Pic’s theatrical prospects will be severely curtailed by the lack of a conventionally engaging narrative, and its deliberate pacing will be trying for mainstream audiences, but it should easily travel the festival road and be presented in venues for more experimental fare.
Thematically, there is not much new in “A, B, C,” a funky, low-key, street-based “Lower East Side film” that revisits the same territory covered by many indie filmmakers, most recently by Matthew Harrison, and recalls in several respects Susan Seidelman’s feature debut, “Smithereens,” which also centered on a conflicted woman.
Spanning the course of one long, pivotal day, the film interweaves the lives of three idiosyncratic women as they are about to make fateful decisions concerning their futures. Brief scenes, accompanied by black-and-white photos and voiceover narration, introduce the femmes.
Skinny and blond, Colleen (Lucy Knight), 25, is a single mother who wants to be a photographer but can’t support her young daughter, Stella (Maisy Hughes). Red-haired Casey (Erin Norris), 18, is looking for her missing dog, which was stolen by her former b.f., and the lesbian lover who has dumped her. Music is the passion of the 22-year-old Kate (Sarah Paul), who’s determined to terminate her relationship with Stevie (Nikolai Voloshuk) and begin a more independent life.
All three women are deeply confused and lost, spending their time wandering aimlessly in the downtown streets of Alphabet City (hence the title). Though the narrative starts with the trio’s meeting — Kate is the new roommate in the flat shared by Colleen and Casey — for the most part, Naderi observes his protagonists as they go about their business separately, with each on the brink of alienation.
The text, a product of collaboration (and some improvisation), is slight, haphazard and often frustrating. What gives Naderi’s film its distinctive feel is its visual strategy: the uninterrupted long takes that track the women, the restless, mobile camera, the bold framing, the calculated rhythm.”A, B, C” is the kind of film in which style is inseparable from substance. Rather admirably, Naderi avoids melodrama and refuses to judge his protagonists, supplying them with plenty of space (both geographically and emotionally) to maneuver and find themselves.
At the same time, made by a male who’s an outsider (Naderi belongs to Iran’s first wave of directors), the film seldom persuades that its director really understands his female character’s complex psyches and souls.