Eric Eason’s “Manito” is so vividly written and filmed that you can practically smell the mean streets it takes place on. More than telling us about specific characters, it tells us about a group of people: proud Hispanics in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.
The title character, Manny (Leo Minaya), is just graduating from high school, and his older brother Junior (Frankie G.) has organized a huge bash in his honor. Their family has been through hard times — the boys are estranged from their father, for example, and while Junior lives with (and cheats on) his girlfriend, Manny lives with his grandfather.
But things are looking up. Junior is trying to run a painting business, and Manny is salutatorian in his class. Their neighborhood, once a haven for drug dealers and criminals, is getting better.
There is still danger, though, turning the film into an urban tragedy complete with two characters hugging in slow-motion, which in movie lingo means this is the last time they’re going to see each other). The problem is, the major action of the movie takes place in the final 20 minutes and then is not resolved properly, for good or for bad. In his search for grittiness and realism, Eason has left us hanging.
The first hour, however, is an impressively visceral piece of work. Sensitive Leo Minaya and smooth-talking Frankie G. create characters who, while not entirely fleshed out, imply volumes about themselves in creative little strokes. Junior gives a great doorstep spiel to a woman skeptical of the legitimacy of his business, and Manny’s interaction with a girl he likes is charming in its street-wise callowness.
Perhaps it takes too long to get going. A screening audience I saw it with grew noticeably restless. I, however, was fascinated by the society being depicted, and by the larger-than-life personalities it spawns. It is a promising debut for a first-time writer/director, and an engaging film on its own.
B (; )