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Unwanted: Dead or Alive

While Republicans and Democrats spend the summer wrangling over custody of the American family, our most thoughtful filmmakers continue to address the burning issue with less bombast, but in far greater depth.

Case in point: Lisa Krueger's Manny & Lo.
In a swift hour and a half, this promising new director dramatizes the plight of children torn loose from their social moorings, the eternal appeal of motherhood and the bittersweet trauma of having to grow up fast in a world woefully short on guidance and care. Neither presidential candidate has equaled Krueger's unsentimental eloquence on these topics, and both men might do well to take in this sad, witty, clear-eyed little movie before bellowing on much longer about how to repair the most basic institution of them all.

Eleven-year-old Amanda (Scarlett Johansson) and her sixteen-year-old sister, Laurel (Aleksa Palladino), are runaways from separate foster homes, now reunited on the road in a beat-up station wagon, with little more than their wits and a bruised devotion to each other for sustenance. At night they flop in soulless "model homes" apparently decorated with "model families" in mind. By day, they siphon gas, shoplift boxes of cereal from convenience stores and, sometimes, imagine lives more settled or more glamorous. "What if we were Italian girls?" the plucky, forward-looking Manny asks. "No. French girls living in Italy."

No such luck. They are motherless American kids set adrift in a kind of dark fairy tale--the older sister hard-shelled and wary with a Marlboro clenched in her lips but full of teenage yearning; the younger Manny dreamy in a pre-adolescent way but still the necessary realist of the pair. Her restless sister Lo, she tells us, dreams of being a stewardess, then adds: "She has a natural gift for turbulence."

So she does. Before the San Francisco-born Krueger takes us very far down the road into the woods of what has to be upstate New York, we learn that Lo is pregnant. At first, she denies the fact, hiding behind a brave smirk, insisting that this problem, too, will somehow vanish. Manny knows better, of course (they both do), and the film takes an inevitable turn. Not unlike Thelma and Louise on their fated journey to self-discovery, Manny and Lo stumble forward, looking for a little help as nine months pass. In the process, they manufacture a kind of ad hoc family.

"You only got one or two moms out there who aren't crappy," the oft-burned Lo announces. In other words, take what you can get. So, after casing a children's store, the girls kidnap the clerk, Elaine (Mary Kay Place), a bossy moralist in a starched white nurse's uniform who seems to know everything about the birth and care of children--and about correct behavior. Guess again.

Soon after the girls and their prisoner hole up in an unoccupied vacation house far down a country lane, Krueger gives the story a wry and satisfying twist. Even as she finds her ankles shackled with a kids' bicycle chain, our ditzy (and, as it turns out, familially challenged) Elaine starts taking to the peculiar role of hostage/surrogate parent with uncommon relish. She may be a fraud and a fool, but there's a raw, comic dignity in Elaine. And in a world of terrors and emotional deprivations, there may be something for everybody after all--maybe even a future for misfits.

Certainly, there's plenty for us in the performances of the two young actresses Krueger has cast in the title roles. Using Lo's paranoid evasions and street-smart bluster, Palladino paints a picture of a teenager in crisis even more startling than, say, the troubled kid in Welcome to the Dollhouse. She's scary perfection, tinged with awful vulnerability. The younger girl's naive dreams--she collects photos of strangers' families--burn bright, but Johansson's most powerful gift here is the forthright way she essays Manny's innate logic and clear sense of the world. I found myself imagining this eleven-year-old as a grownup--damaged yet magnificent, if she gets the chance to play her cards right.

As a director, Krueger has an eye for telling detail. The image of two little girls exchanging grape lollipops in the front seat of a car gives way to that of a furious woman/child storming out of an abortion clinic. The girls' desolate realization that, despite all their feints and dodges through the countryside, no one's been looking for them (because no one cares, it goes without saying) is soon conjoined to a hilarious directive from Elaine: Lo is now to write an essay of 500 words or more on taking hostages.

Krueger, who earlier worked with independent film icons Jim Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara, is a filmmaker who can bring heartbreaking resonance to a neighbor boy's statement that he's "in a sloppy joe mood," so his mother's going to be making sloppy joes for dinner, and who can elevate a kid's quietly desperate look to sheer poetry. But there's no sentimentality in her work--no sap. Her powerful but unadorned stuff will never doll up the Movie of the Week, and the Doles and Clintons of the world are unlikely to find her inspirational because she doesn't deal in dictums or decrees.

But in Manny & Lo Krueger's got the corner on family values--no matter how you define family.

Manny & Lo.
Written and directed by Lisa Krueger. With Scarlett Johansson, Aleksa Palladino and Mary Kay Place.

 
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