Manito is a U.S. ?Latino? film written and directed by Eric Eason. Eason, born and raised in New York is not Latino but his film focuses on a Puerto Rican family in Washington Heights that is threatened by the malevolent legacy of the absent father. Although the film depicts both the men and the women in the family, its representation of the women is two dimensional and functional only as props or backdrops for the men to display their symptoms of dysfunctional masculinity.
Nevertheless, Eason?s highly stylized narrative is adroitly constructed and the characterization of the men in the family is poignant, if at times a bit myopic, in addressing the pathologies of masculinity in a working class Latino family in a tough neighborhood. The film is shot in cinema v?rite style, a documentary film style where a hand held camera is always near the characters. Franky G., who plays Junior the older brother, is brilliant in his manifestation as an ex-convict who strives for redemption through Manny?s, his younger brother, educational success.
The story is efficiently told over two days, focusing on Manny?s impending graduation from high school and his celebration party given to him by his family. Manny is the last and only hope for the family to escape the wake of the father?s destructive behavior. As the story unfolds, the film crosscuts between Manny, Junior, the father (Father), and the grandfather, constructing an implicit argument about the ills that generations inherit from previous generations. The grandfather sells his wares to prostitutes in a brothel in a short narrative but there is no clear cut connection made between the grandfather?s and the father?s behavior. This is the weakness in the argument made about masculinity and its ripple effects on subsequent family members.
Manny?s success in school (he has earned a full scholarship to Syracuse University) is the great hope for the family?s men (and women) and they all acknowledge this, especially Junior who has paid his dues to society for his father?s illegal activities. The family embraces Manny?s success and hold on desperately to dreams of his future. Manny?s educational achievement is his distinction among his family members, friends and, more profoundly, his environment. It is this representation of ?hope? for a Latino family in Washington Heights that provides the setting for the drama that takes place in presenting a threat to this family?s future.
But there is something wrong here: "Hope" is going to college and breaking away from the pernicious legacy wrought by the father?s injuries to his sons and his community. What makes Manny different from his friends or his family? What obstacles does Manny need to overcome throughout his educational journey to Syracuse in order to succeed? In one scene all of Manny and his friends and classmates are in a classroom with him, signing yearbooks and speaking about a future with little hope. In this scene the musical score grows melancholy and sympathetic. For these young Latinos the future is not bright and holds little promise. What is Manny doing in a class of youths who are not going to college while he has earned a full ride to Syracuse? Where are the other (few) youths who have also excelled with Manny by taking the required college prep courses? How could Manny?s close friends be underachievers educationally while he apparently is a super-achiever (in relation to his environment)?
The film's answer is that Manny has the internal resources to draw on in order to succeed in society as well as the same resources to draw on that provide his own demise. It is this view of individualism, and the biological causal logic that provides the form of this tragedy. It is Manny?s and the family?s problem. Dysfunctional masculinity is internalized, meaning that the father?s unethical behavior is weakly or confusedly related to the grandfather?s selling of clothing and wares to prostitutes, and Manny?s fate, is ultimately related to this lineage.
The film is slightly aware of this internalization and attempts to grapple with the family dysfunction and its relation to the social problems that beset lower working class inner city families, yet this perspective outside the family is the weakest aspect of this provocative and dynamic story of three troubled men striving to find their way. Eason?s first time out is thought-provoking and his story well told.