AS A ROAD movie, Manny & Lo is definitely neither here nor there. Its point of origin is murky, and its ending is more of a suggestion than a summation. However, like a package of snapshots almost forgotten but just picked up, it has plenty of frozen moments that entertain and provoke thought.
The title tells the names of two sisters. Manny/Amanda (Scarlett Johansson) is 11, and would be precocious in better circumstances. Lo/Laurel (Aleksa Palladino) is 16 going on much older; she's impulsive, thinks she's in control, and eventually and grudgingly admits she's pregnant. No parents are left to raise them, and their foster families were nothing to cherish. So Lo has pulled out Mom's old station wagon, picked up Manny, and together, they've hit the road on a budget of shoplifting, in search of--well, not much, though an abstraction like "family" or "motherhood" comes to mind.
This is where I almost parted company with Manny & Lo, because with things so sketchy already, the dim destiny of a possible home life--especially "the family as a social construct"--didn't seem like a trip I wanted to stick with. When the sisters lurk in a maternity store and decide to kidnap the know-it-all clerk named Elaine (Mary Kay Place), I'd almost had it. How many sitcoms and/or non-mainstream domestic units since the '70s have persuaded us that a family is defined by love or shared circumstances, not by blood? How many more orphans, stepsiblings, workplace relationships, and/or cross-cultural adoptions can the market bear? Is there yet another odd couple caper on the way?
As most orphan stories go, the early parts of Manny & Lo are dutifully pathetic. Camped out on suburban dream lawns, squatting in fully furnished model homes, the sisters are obvious outsiders with their noses at the window of "normality." When they go down a long woodsy road and end up at an uninhabited fairy tale cabin--the Narrative Resolution Site--things seem almost too perfect. Yet it's here that the abducted Elaine is forced to impose her own weird notions of domesticity on the girls, who accept them without question because they don't know what else to do, and because they suppose Elaine will know what gives when the baby comes.
Anyone with fond, fuzzy memories of Mary Kay Place's Loretta Hagers from Mary Hartman, or of the various guest roles she's had on My So-Called Life and Friends, will be surprised at her terse virtuosity here, as she clamps down on personal tics and produces an even more indelible character. Elaine works in the maternity shop because she's related to the owners, not because of any firsthand experience. She socializes through her church because it's a guaranteed refuge. With her nurse-like pantsuit and her hair in a tight French twist, it's hard to think of her as "nurturing," however you define it. But, like lonely people anywhere, Elaine has built up a powerful private library of opinion, fact, and unique beliefs, and the unwitting girls see this as a kind of mastery.
On the simple side, this instant mom teaches Manny and Lo to like hot dish. At a deeper level--once she's revealed her hunger strike is a fraud by gobbling Lucky Charms in private--she's forced to put theory into practice, turning her captors into charges. And this is what makes Manny & Lo strange and awe-inspiring. Elaine is possibly even more haunted and unwanted than the girls. As she improvises concern, affection, and, ultimately, devotion from behind tight lips and a barren womb, she comes alive but retains her grudges. She accommodates and yet remains mysterious.
Manny & Lo is hobbled, though not defeated by the fact that its three main characters are obvious ideas, components of a larger concept. Elaine's behavior is desperate and occasionally overwritten, as when she tries her own hand at hostage-taking. Similar extraneous explanation comes through Manny's fascination with counting and measuring, and with Lo's wispy dream of being a flight attendant.
Yet the cast soars above this pathology-on-paper. Cocooned in John Lurie's sparse and reflective score, Place, Johansson, and Palladino unsentimentally leap past the tracings writer-director Lisa Krueger has given them. They inhabit little moments, gestures, and expressions that make their characters seem plausible, even if their story isn't. They may not redefine "family" but they surely do put a new and plainly elegant spin on performance itself. The real gift of this movie is not its theme, but its execution.