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Captive-ating

Manny & Lo is an odd movie: the story of two runaway sisters who kidnap a spinster, and how all three turn out to be remarkable people.

Sisters Manny (Scarlett Johansson) and Lo (Aleksa Palladino) don't look remarkable. Manny, the 11-year-old, is a skinny, dreamy kid with an interest in measurements -- how many miles driven, in how many minutes, how many houses passed. Lo, chunky on her best days, is a bulky pregnant teen with a good two inches of jet-black roots in her greasy hair. Lo is all action and no reflection; she spirited Manny away from a foster home when their biological mother died, and remains afraid the police might come looking for them, and might place them in new, separate foster homes. Whenever the pair is shoplifting groceries, she orders Manny to check milk cartons, to see whether their faces appear over the "Have you seen me?" slogan. Manny does not find their pictures -- and does not expect to.

Lo is going to have a baby -- she's past the point of having options. With all the sentiment of a pregnant cat, she explains that a semipermanent home is required "so we won't just be floating around when this thing hits." She appropriates a wealthy family's ski house, vacant for the summer. Once settled, the pair hop back in Mom's old station wagon and head into town to shoplift baby stuff.

Elaine (Mary Kay Place) works in the maternity boutique, wearing a faux nurse's outfit and annoying all the customers with her expertise. As soon as Lo lays eyes on her, she scraps her original plan to "get a book or something." We need her, Lo says, we should take her. When Manny objects, Lo argues, "We take things from stores all the time."

First-time filmmaker Lisa Krueger and her excellent cast present exchanges like that with rich detail and powerful emotional undertones. Manny & Lo's sincere treatment of the quirky central characters is laudable; the movie is wonderful for its seriousness.

The seemingly common creatures become interesting when they start talking, and some of the best talking is Manny's narration. (Manny & Lo, like Days of Heaven, ties scenes together with a voice-over from a weird little girl.) As narrator, Manny explains that the sisters kidnapped Elaine because "strange, amazing things" happen all the time.

Elaine minces comically around the house, her ankles bound with bicycle chains. Despite her protests, we know no one is looking for her. (Her captors forced her to write a note, "I'm going on vacation. Love, Elaine," and that scrap was enough to answer all the questions anyone might have.) Even in chains, she maintains appearances -- keeping her hair in a tight French twist, ironing her homemade nurse's outfit and insisting that she is missed. When Manny or Lo knocks on her bedroom door, she cheerily calls out "Who is it?" as if she doesn't know exactly who it is, as if anyone ever knocked on any door she was behind. We see her stubborn, desperate affectations, and, more important, we see that she is intrigued by the notion that someone needs her. Even as we find Elaine's pretenses ridiculous, we are moved by her eagerness to help, by her willingness to love.

Love, of course, means different things to different people. Perhaps Elaine, in her loving heart, thinks the best thing would be for her to escape and get help for herself and for these two girls. Perhaps Lo, though grateful for Elaine's help, is too stubborn and scared to trust her. Manny loves and trusts Lo, and very shortly Elaine, too, but as a child, Manny cannot be expected to make wise decisions for others. Krueger shows us that her characters have feelings, but is canny about what they might do. One of her best tricks is to keep the story line clear, and yet let us share the characters' suspicions about one another.

Krueger is low-key and sneaky about the suspense stuff, too. One afternoon, with odd cramps, Lo comes to Elaine for advice. The middle-aged woman tells the big-bellied 16-year-old to assume a bizarre head-down posture. Stay like that for 13 minutes, Elaine says, I'll go make some tea. The suspense is wonderful. Lo is there, on the bed with Manny, and Elaine has hobbled away. This simple scene is maddening -- is Lo a fool? Is Manny staying with Lo because she doesn't suspect Elaine will make a break, or is she Elaine's accomplice?

The excitement in this scene derives from the movie's seriousness. Though Lo's silly posture is amusing, the real deal is that something is at stake. We care deeply what decisions these people make, and whether or not they hurt one another. We are concerned with what they have to offer one another. Manny & Lo has much talk of gifts. Manny recognizes her sister's gift for independence, travel and turbulence (Lo hopes to be a stewardess one day), while Elaine, in her own pinched, needy way, speaks eloquently: "There are all sorts of ways to give a gift, not just the obvious way."

Manny & Lo is all about not-just-the-obvious ways. Though its love-and-family lessons are nothing new, the unique details of each character make the movie rare and valuable.

This film is rated R, a criminal act by the ratings board. Those smug witless goons probably saw only that Lo has a trash mouth and that she's pregnant. What they failed to see is that this is a graceful movie about three awkward females and how they are saved -- exactly what preteen and teenage girls should be seeing.

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

Rated R.
89 minutes.

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