Julissa Lopez and Franky G. in MANITO

USA, 2003. Rated R. 78 minutes.

Cast: Franky G., Leo Minaya, Manuel Cabral, Julissa Lopez, Jessica Morales, Hector Gonzalez, Panchito Gomez
Writer: Eric Eason
Music: Saundi Wilson
Cinematographer: Didier Gertsch
Producers: Allen Bain, Jesse Scolaro
Director: Eric Eason


Grade: B- Review by Erika Hernandez

Throughout the intro sequence of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, the viewer is transported to dreamy Lumberton, U.S.A. Soft focus, slow motion shots of neighborhood children, pets and firemen float gently into the eye, and are set to Bobby Vinton's signature ballad. One minute later, the viewer is then forced to look (literally) beneath the surface of Legoland into something deeper, darker. Something left behind, raw and untreated. This metaphor for (among other things) the fallout of the '80s Regan Era was brilliant. Yes, our economy was booming. Yes, we were the biggest badasses in the world (embarrassingly reflected in our hair, our cars, our makeup, our music, and, largely, our films). Meanwhile, our homeless rate was astounding, and our social programs lay in fiscal starvation.

Late-'90s New York City. It was a cross between Bellagio-Era Las Vegas and Disneyland. And it was chiefly due to Rudolph Giuliani. Throughout his mayoral tenure, he initiated programs to make New York a better place to be, to live, to visit, and to film (contrast Taxi Driver with Sex in the City). Many will argue, however, that he did this only for the most visible segment of the population--the shell that we outsiders see on postcards. Inevitably, certain areas were excluded from this "beautification equation" (i.e., the lower income neighborhoods of Chinatown, Harlem, and Washington Heights).

Manito, written and directed as a first feature by New York native Eric Eason, explores this underbelly of the Giuliani Era. Unlike in Lynch's stylized masterpiece, Eason presents his subject matter through an urban realist/cinema vérité aesthetic. (One might say that Eason did this in the spirit of Rosellini and De Sica, seeking to shed light on a people trying to dig their way out of a modern-day rubble. A more cynical take might yield that he did this because he shot the entire film on digital video with a staggeringly low budget of $24,000, so what choice did he have?)

Eason's landscape of Puerto Rican-populated Washington Heights is a gritty cross-section of forgotten children. Manito features a host of first-time actors, and takes the viewer through two days in the life of the Moreno family.

Amid the film's many shaky, poorly lit shots dwells a somewhat familiar narrative. Manito's storyline is driven by the Moreno men, whose characters read like a tragic set of stairs. Abuelo (or Grandfather) Moreno (Hector Gonzalez) sells lingerie and other apparel to local brothels. Oscar Moreno (Manuel Cabral) is a reformed crack dealer, who is estranged from his two sons, Junior (Franky G.) and Manito/Manny (Leo Minaya). Junior (who represents the transition from past into present) is a macho, womanizing ex-convict turned house painter. He does not speak to his father, since he was incarcerated for being involved with his dad's drug business. Meanwhile, Manito (who represents hope and the future of the Moreno family and their neighborhood) is about to graduate from high school and go to Syracuse University on a full scholarship.

Manito's departure from ghetto life is not frowned upon by his family. Indeed, they celebrate it by throwing him a modest but colorful graduation party at the local recreational hall. Tearful speeches are made. Puerto Rican music runs at full volume. The attendees include Junior's parole officer, Manny's teachers and classmates, Abuelo's "clients," family, and various other friends. Marisol (Jessica Morales)--a teenaged single mother who serves as Manny's love interest--appears in full seductive garb. They dance very, very close. A fight breaks out, but settles and dancing continues.

This scene inspires hope, not for our Manito, but for Eason. For this is how these parties look and feel: eclectic, loud, emotional, disjointed, and cheaply assembled. During this portion of the film, Eason provides an honest portrayal of this kind of life--which according to him was the film's essential goal. He does not glorify it. He does not condescend to it. He does not dramatize it. He just tells it.

Unfortunately, the film retreats into heavy melodrama. Paramount life choices are made within the next twenty minutes, which seal the fates of all involved. This would not pose a problem, had we been presented with a formalist film about the ghetto, like Mi Familia or Boyz N 'Da Hood. But this is not what Eason is selling us.

This is not to say that the film lacks merit. Eason evokes believable performances from a group of no-names who answered a random trade ad. Chief among these actors is Franky G. (Junior), who has been in high demand since this project, appearing in Confidence, The Italian Job, and Wonderland. The dialogue is authentic and reflective of current street slang. There are also comedic moments such as Junior's off-the-cuff pontification on the differences between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans (a intra-cultural prejudicial phenomenon rarely mentioned in film) and a sequence in which Junior and his partner scam their client by telling her that their undocumented workers (donning bus boy attire from their previous job) just like to "dress up for their first day of painting."

Manito is a solid effort from a first-time writer/director. Eason warrants admiration for his tenacity; he spent one year editing the film in his apartment. In the end, however the dissonance between Manito as "realistic urban ethnography" and "high ghetto drama" is just too apparent to reconcile.

Review © June 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Film Movement. All Rights Reserved.

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