A singularly quirky, utterly original sensibility is displayed by writer-director Lisa Krueger in her feature debut, “Manny & Lo,” a modern fairy tale in which three misfits establish a unique bond that defies traditional definitions. This offbeat satire lacks a name cast, but, with shrewd marketing, Sony Classics should be able to reach way beyond the arthouse crowd that embraced last year’s equally idiosyncratic indie “Spanking the Monkey,” which resembles Krueger’s new film and was also produced by Dean Silvers.
A road movie that stops moving after the first reel, juvenile kidnappers who have no idea what they’re doing, a squeaky-clean suburban matron who holds her own “dark” secret — these are some of the narrative elements in this pointedly written, darkly toned comedy that turns every conventional idea, including what constitutes a family, on its head.
Yarn begins with a visually stunning scene: Two girls wake up from a good night’s sleep on a meticulously mowed lawn decorating a row of uniform houses. They are 11-year-old Amanda, nicknamed Manny (Scarlett Johansson), and Laurel, or Lo (Aleksa Palladino), 16, runaway sisters who have escaped from foster homes and are now on the road, living hand-to-mouth while spending their nights at various model homes.
Unexpected trouble sets the girls’ adventure on a detour, leading them to a store that sells baby accessories, where they encounter bizarre shop clerk Elaine (Mary Kay Place). The duo, who spend a good deal of their time bickering and needling each other, decide to kidnap Elaine and move into an isolated house in the woods.
When Elaine finds out that Lo is in the advanced stages of pregnancy, she begins to dispense all kinds of maternal advice. Gradually, the sisters find themselves listening to their hostage and even taking note of her supposedly expert wisdom.
Unfortunately, the smooth flow of events is arrested in film’s second half, when not much happens dramatically; a bit of trimming would help the pace. Krueger fills the time with keen observations about how the three very different femmes react in tense, claustrophobic situations.
Despite the imaginative setup and the original sensibility, pic ultimately suffers from a slight, rather contrived narrative and a lack of secondary characters. Nonetheless, the film gathers needed energy and drive in its last reel, when the three women finally leave the house. Inventive twists and turns lead to a most gratifying denouement.
Krueger carries her film’s modernist ideology about what constitutes a family further than usual by showing how unpleasant encounters can sometimes yield beneficial results. In this fairy tale, Elaine turns out to be a “good” witch, a middle-aged woman forced to acknowledge that she needs the girls at least as much as they need her.
Pic’s greatest asset is the terrific chemistry between Palladino, who combines the necessary outward toughness with inward vulnerability, and Johansson, who effortlessly mixes childish naivete with subtle intelligence. The quirky tone of Johansson’s voiceover narration resembles Linda Manz’s droll commentary in “Days of Heaven”– her unhampered, off-the-wall remarks are funny and sad at the same time. Place, usually a reliable pro, is no more than OK, possibly confined by the text, which consists of one-liners for her character that are not as witty or spontaneous as those uttered by the unrestrained siblings.
Tech credits, particularly crisp and often lyrical lensing by Tom Krueger (the director’s brother) and John Lurie’s evocative music, contribute considerably to the film’s overall impact.