"Did you ever dream about someone before you saw them in life? Sort of like you made them up, but you didn't?"
Most mothers would answer that question immediately: Yes. Yes, we dream about our children before they are born, before we are matched with an adoptive child, before we bring our children home. Before they are in our hearts, they are in our minds.
When I was first pregnant, I dreamt my baby was a girl. She was beautiful in my dreams, with my husband's blonde hair and blue eyes. But, nightmarishly, she was also a teenager, one of the popular ones. I woke in a cold sweat at the thought of producing a "mean girl," like those that had so intimidated me in high school. I ended up having a boy, but I still think sometimes about what a daughter of mine might be like, about how I'd mother her. And I think about that particularly when I watch a movie like Manny & Lo (Lisa Krueger, 1996), about two tough girls who could use some mothering.
Eleven year-old Manny is thoughtfully played by a gawky Scarlett Johansson before she grew up and turned glamorous. She opens the film with the lines I quoted above, but Manny is not every mother's dream. She's a runaway, a shop-lifter, and a hostage-taker. She's been kidnapped herself, by her tough-talking sixteen year-old sister Lo (Aleksa Palladino), who feels that the foster family caring for Manny since their mother's death is substandard. Now the two are on the lam in an old wood-paneled station wagon, sleeping in vacant model homes, checking milk cartons to make sure that their faces don't appear in those galleries of missing children, and shop-lifting Twinkies to fuel their days. It's shaping up to be a Thelma & Louise for the 'tween set until the perceptive Manny points out to her oblivious sister that Lo is pregnant. About eight months pregnant. "Shit," says Lo.
Faced with the facts, but still somehow quite naïve, Lo takes action. She goes straight to a clinic to "get it taken care of." She walks out on the exam when she doesn't like what she hears and changes strategies; they need a place in the country, she tells Manny, a place that will give them some stability "when this thing hits." They find an empty vacation lodge that suits their purposes; they shoplift some baby gear and then, while they're at it, decide to kidnap the lady who works at the store to help them deliver the baby.
Elaine (Mary Kay Place) fancies herself a nurse and drives puzzled customers away from the store with her over-abundance of product information; it turns out she's as orphaned and rootless as her young kidnappers, and although she remains wary of them for a time, methodically trying combinations on the lock around her feet and refusing to eat, she begins to see that these two forgotten girls ("I don't think anybody's been 'after our ass,' any minute," Manny tells Lo wearily) could give her a home. She improves the girls' diet with "hot dish" she makes out of the canned food on the kitchen shelves, cuts Lo's hair and eases her pregnancy discomforts. She simply listens to Manny, a child right on the brink of womanhood, a girl so perceptive about her sister (who, she comments dryly, has "a natural gift for turbulence") yet is still kid enough to hypnotize salamanders by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and to spray her sheets with Arrid Extra-Dry because it reminds her of her alcoholic, drug addicted, deceased, never-much-of-a-mother mom.
Lo may be naïve and immature, but she's old enough to feel thrown-away, and to feel plenty angry about it. She smokes and swears and bullies her companions. She thrashes about like a tantruming toddler, needing someone just to hold her close until she's done. She doesn't trust Elaine, and she barely trusts Manny, who's charged with checking Elaine's progress as she runs through the numbers on her combination lock. But Elaine waits her out and keeps the lock on even after she's figured out the combination and Lo, who has been spying on families at a miniature golf course hoping to find a likely-looking home for her baby, finally sees what Elaine could be: "I used to think, No way can you give your kid to your hostage, but you're not like most people Elaine, I can really see that now. You're way past that grudge shit. Stuff. Way past. You've got the knowledge, the medical know-how, and it's not just that -- It's like, you're the real thing."
It doesn't all go quite as Lo plans, of course; nothing in the film does. They have to leave their hide-out unexpectedly, Manny's pushed to the verge of abandoning her big sister, Elaine vomits at the prospect of actually delivering a baby. But each of them finds a bit of what they're looking for: Manny finds something like a mother; Elaine finds something like a family; Lo finds something like peace. As they prepare to drive off together at the end of the film, Elaine assigns Manny an essay: "Five hundred words or more, about certain lessons you've learned, about taking hostages." The film ends with Manny's voice narrating the words that open the film, but we hear them now a bit differently. Maybe no one would sign up for the family that they've created, but honestly, not all of us would, if given the choice beforehand, choose exactly what we've gotten with our families, either. It's only after your family is in your heart that you can say, This, this is what I want. What a surprise.