Underdog film affirms offbeat tastes in culture

Northern Virginia JOURNAL, 13-Nov-02

At the mall and multiplex, you expect to see posters of hot current movie stars. What you don’t expect is to arrive at the theater lobby, be greeted by your chosen film’s actors and co-director, and then be accompanied to your seat by the lead actress – who serves you popcorn and Coke. Such was my experience last Friday at Arlington’s Regal 12 Ballston Common, where I encountered three of the five energetic Burton sisters. These determined women form part of Five Sisters Productions, the filmmaking team, originally from Bethesda, Md., whose new independent comedy “Manna from Heaven” is building quiet momentum amid the clutter and clatter of Hollywood big-budget features.

Their splash is rippling, in part, because the sisters have tirelessly been making personal appearances at nearly all recent showings of their movie in Arlington and Alexandria. But it also is proof that underdogs can win the contest for the prize some call the b—-goddess of artistic success. Fame, wealth and connections may help draw initial attention to a work, but they don’t always trump individual spirit, fresh vision and authenticity.

“Manna from Heaven” is the romping tale of an Irish- and Italian-American working-class family whose modest front yard is inexplicably showered with hundreds of $20 bills – a fortune that fell, unbeknownst to the recipients, through the broken door of a delivery truck careening down the highway overhead. The newly blessed family members upgrade their lifestyles over the next couple of decades. Then suddenly, the philosophical daughter who’d grown up to become a nun gets a signal from the Almighty that it’s time to return the money, even though no one had ever sought the rightful owner. It is against this column’s policy to spoil any movie’s surprise. Let’s simply say that the extended family’s road to redemption takes it through a fund-raising raffle, a dance contest, some revitalized love lives and a brush with the law. The resulting emotional uplift, for my money, beats any slick and overproduced flick built around a murdered rapper or a stale ’60s TV series.

The marketing blitz for “Manna” piggybacks off the recent surprise hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” That similarly offbeat comedy about a blue-collar ethnic family in Chicago goes more for slapstick belly-laughs, whereas “Manna” leans toward quirky charm. Another difference is that “Manna” attracted big-name thespians such as Cloris Leachman, Louise Fletcher, Shelley Duvall, Shirley Jones and Jill Eikenberry. All of these actresses are highly accomplished, if perhaps past being mainstream salable, and they accepted modest fees and perks “because they liked the script,” co-director Gabrielle Burton told me. (That script was written by the Burtons’ mother, a successful novelist also named Gabrielle. Their father also acts in the film.)

For its soundtrack, “Manna” boldly falls back on comfortable lounge standbys such as Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” rather than contemporary hip-hop or techno music. There are further good deeds. The film was shot in the underdog city of Buffalo, N.Y., where the sisters spent their formative years, and which struggles against economic stagnation. Because it was made in that depressed part of his state, New York Sen. Charles Schumer is championing “Manna,” and other members of Congress got a screening. Also, some proceeds benefit Habitat for Humanity.

To publicize rollouts in Missouri, Washington, D.C., and, next month, Buffalo, the siblings – Gabrielle, Maria, Jennifer, Ursula and Charity Burton – are waging a guerrilla campaign. It includes e-mail networking asking patrons to spread the word, post a review on Web sites and “prove to the film industry that there is a desire in the marketplace for feel-good, independent movies with a mature cast.”

Few of us have time to play test audience for every obscure new film. So mostly we buy into the industry’s “high concept” formulas, which usually involve Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, babes in skimpy clothing, rock stars and TV personalities, endless sequels and prequels – everything that’s safe. Tinseltown’s publicity machine fools you with its fat budgets for 76-point-type full-page newspaper ads that make a routine new film look like a mass social movement. I especially resent it when the action figures, stuffed animals and school lunch boxes celebrating a “blockbuster” movie are shipped to stores even before the “hit” film is released. Point is, there are rewards to thinking for yourself when choosing film fare.

“Manna from Heaven” is a convincing, sly and heartwarming detour from Hollywood’s main highway. I give it five thumbs up (one for each sister). And not just because its star served me popcorn.

Charlie Clark lives in Arlington. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays. His e-mail address is cclarkjedd@aol.com.