Franky G., the star of the micro-budget movie Manito (Film Movement), is a big guy with muscles like coconuts and a complexion reminiscent of tree bark. In the last year, he has turned up in small parts in the Hollywood movies Confidence and The Italian Job, where his lack of acting chops stood out beside such seasoned hams as Dustin Hoffman and Edward Norton: He seemed like the Kmart Vin Diesel. You have to see his debut, in Manito, to know why directors were so hot to cast him. As Junior, an oversexed ex-con now working as a painting contractor, Franky G. doesn't give off trained-actor vibes, and his diction is mush, but he's got presence that more adept performers would kill for. He hurls himself into his big emotional scenes, and his amateurishness works for him—it makes him seem more vulnerable. He looks like the world's most tragic bouncer.
Manito is the rare little movie that gets bigger as it goes along—so big that it can hardly contain its own emotion. It was shot on video, for $25,000, by first-time director Eric Eason, and the budget shows: It's a little hard to see and a little harder to understand. The hand-held cameras bob and weave and come in tight on the characters, whose outlines blur and streak. (If you sit too near the screen you might get seasick.) It's hard to get a fix on the plot for a while, too. In the first few scenes, Junior wakes up, groggily interacts with his wife and kids, drives around Manhattan's Washington Heights, then goes to his job as a painting contractor, while people in his family get ready to celebrate his kid brother's high-school graduation. For a long time you can't tell who's related to whom, and the actors look like they're making up the dialogue, which jumps back and forth between English and Spanish. (The characters sometimes switch in midsentence.)
And then, slowly, Manito pulls you in. The movie is 76 minutes long, but it has an overflowing quality. The details are fresh and surprising, and people who are seen only casually stay in your head. Eason captures the push-and-pull of life in a community where everyone's on top of everyone else: comfortably close, yet dangerously close for comfort.
Despite the whoppers Junior tells to excuse his lateness on jobs and his tendency to jump into bed with any chica bonita who swishes by, he's more or less an honest man. What has kept him grounded is his love for his brother Manny (Leo Minaya), his "Manito," a slender little guy who has just been accepted at Syracuse University. For reasons that aren't clear until late in the movie, Junior hasn't let their father (Manuel Cabral) anywhere near the boy for years, even threatening to kill the old man when he sends over a giant sub (he owns a bodega) for Manny's graduation party. Raising Manito right is Junior's obsession—his tragic obsession, maybe.
At the two-thirds mark, Manito takes a swerve into melodrama, and it ends on a note of mythic horror. I've heard complaints that its first half, with its loosely scripted dialogue and documentary style, doesn't mesh with its near-operatic climax. It's certainly a ragged piece of storytelling, with guns and subway hooligans appearing on cue. And Manito himself is somewhat undercharacterized. (He has a tender, joshing rapport with a girl he likes, played by Jessica Morales, but not enough scenes with his older brother.) But the movie is all of a piece. The groundwork for the ending has been subtly laid: When Manito gets in trouble with the cops, Junior discovers that, in this kind of hothouse working-class environment, the sins of the father have a way of sticking to you like a sweaty T-shirt.
Manito won top prizes at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, but it didn't have distributors clamoring to pick it up. The company that bought it, Film Movement, is trying something new: giving Manito a limited run in big cities while at the same time marketing it as part of a 12-film subscription series on DVD.
Film Movement is the brainchild of Larry Meistrich, late of the Shooting Gallery, which went belly-up a few years back despite a couple of breakout hits like Sling Blade (1996) (which it developed) and Croupier (1998) (which it distributed). Meistrich has been looking for ways around the prohibitive cost of exhibiting—and advertising—small movies, and I wish him well. But I'm not sure if the subscription model will work for DVD the way it does for repertory theaters and symphony orchestras. And watching films at home is obviously a poor substitute for the communal moviegoing experience.
That said, I get e-mails from movie lovers all over the country with no access to films like Manito—or with access but no desire to pay for big-city parking and baby sitters unless the movie is an "event." I'm for anything that makes small and challenging films accessible to everyone, everywhere, at the exact same time—that puts them in the present tense, which is where movies belong.