Sometimes dire situations lead to fortuitous events. Lisa Krueger shows this to be true for two orphan sisters: 11-year-old Manny (played by Scarlett Johansson) and 16-year-old Lo (played by Aleksa Palladino). Manny and Lo are constantly on the run from one location to the next with no real life-plan other than to shoplift whenever possible and follow Lo's number one rule: "Keep moving and you won't get nailed." Once wonders how bad life must have been in the foster homes they fled from, for them to see homelessness as the better option.
Manny seems to accept Lo's questionable choices (such as travelling from point a to point-wherever-we-end-up),while they both continue to ignore the gravity of the situation. Lo eventually gets a terrible case of "I didn't know I was pregnant". According to her doctor, she passed the point of no return and abortion was no longer an option.
Knowing she has no choice but to have the baby makes Lo all the more frantic, further deteriorating her already-poor decision-making-abilities. They find themselves driving to the countryside in a beat-up Chevy wagon in the vain hope of coming up with a solution to the baby-problem. The trip eventually leads them to a countryside cabin where they become squatters while the property owner is conveniently away.
Lo continues to be boorish and make anxiety-based decisions; so grossly exaggerating her tough-girl exterior and concealing the fact that she is only 16 years old, and has little idea what it is that pregnant women do. She eventually decides she needs some help with the pregnancy and inevitable birth. The universe (or whatever you wish to call it) starts to promptly provide the answer in the form of an under-appreciated baby-supply store-clerk called Elaine (played by Mary Kay Place).
The encounter is most timely because clearly Elaine knows a lot about babies. After two and a half minutes of careful consideration, Lo decides that the best way to approach Elaine for help is with a shotgun. She commands Manny to help her kidnap the shocked store-clerk and take her to their cabin. We later learn that Elaine is a highly-strung workaholic who never takes breaks. For her to have suddenly dissapeared with no explanation except a badly written "gone on holiday" note, no doubt would have roused suspicion. Or would it?
Lo, naturally, suspects Elaine will try to escape. Manny sees things differently "Did you ever notice how certain people won't trust somebody unless that somebody is wearing a chain on their ankles? Well Lo was one of those people, and I guess Elaine knew it. Anyways, if it wasn't bugging them, then it wasn't going to bug me." Perhaps Elaine wants to be there, Manny suggests to Lo, who brushes it off as childish nonsense. After all, wouldn't a hostage want to escape?
As the story progresses, an interesting relationship starts to form between the three, despite Elaine being forced to wear bike chains around her ankles at all times. Once some (limited) trust is formed, they establish a homely routine, involving cooked dinners by Elaine, who often talks to the girls using lofty words in attempt to conceal her good intentions.
Elaine and Lo eventually realise, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that nobody is looking for them. Manny, despite her youth, has always known this to be the truth, and interestingly enough, never let it bother her.
In Manny's world everything is slowed down, and we see things through the eyes of an 11-year-old as if new things are constantly happening. Manny takes notice of the smaller details in life, while Lo continues to be distracted by real or imagined problems (as many of us do).
We learn that Manny's love is detached but true. We move from assuming Manny is simply a little kid who is easily bossed around by her older sister to understanding that she is strong willed and chooses loyalty as a strength of character, while having confidence in her own savoir-faire.
Manny is a poised, young girl who displays a manner of self-possession many adults cannot create for themselves. In the face of an agitated, unpredictable world, she remains calm because she is at home in the world. She also proves to have great insight into people's minds. Lo doesn't notice her sister's gift, but Elaine-the-hostage (who presumably doesn't know Manny as anything but a young captor) acknowledges that Manny is indeed an incredible person, to which Manny replies, "thanks", with a winsome smile.
The defining moment, for me, is when all three sit awkwardly at the dinner table; misfits attempting to form an abstract family unit. We are given hints about their past; things have gone wrong at some point, and the hard truth that each of them are facing is they had always tried to escape their problems by running alongside them rather than facing them head on.
Though Manny and Lo is a dark comedy, I hardly laughed and rarely felt uncomfortable. It got a rating of R but had the PG vibe. It's an oddball drama that attempts to ask "what makes a real family?" - A bittersweet question that has been left to interpretation for so long, I hardly cared to answer it. It would instead make a very good early high-school essay question.
I tip my hat to a young Scarlett Johansson for driving this film with her quaint character and for coming such a long way since.