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Mean streets 

Manito

Writer/director Eric Eason takes such a drastic change in tone in his debut feature Manito, it's as though you start out watching one movie and end up with another one.

Manito begins as a day-in-the-life kind of story, with montages following several generations of the Moreno family through their daily routines in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood. On the day of his graduation, college-bound Manny (Leo Minaya) hangs out with his friends, and Eason shows a relaxed command of street-level details.

Manny's older brother Junior (fiery Franky G.) is a temperamental, adulterous ex-con who tries to maintain his contracting business with a mix of honest hustle and shady dealings. When he enlists some unemployed bus boys for a house painting job, he tells the skeptical homeowner that their uniforms reflect their professional commitment.

The entire cast reunites that evening for a party in Manny's honor, and when they take turns toasting the lad, it's like we're watching someone's home movie. Shot on digital video, the entire film has a comparable level of intimacy. But an ugly encounter during a late-night subway ride gives the film a dramatically different change in mood, and Manito becomes a grim, at times melodramatic depiction of urban crime and poverty akin to Boyz N the Hood.

The Moreno family helplessly witnesses the doom of their middle-class aspirations, as a culture of predatory violence, a callous justice system and the fraying bonds of family life crush any attempt at personal betterment. Manito's final confrontation between Junior and his estranged father is more the stuff of Greek tragedy than the documentary realism of the film's earlier half. Although the film's two sections are as mismatched as brothers Manny and Junior, they combine for a powerful, unsparing portrait of a community struggling to save itself.

Manito screens June 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Regal Hollywood 24 Cinema.

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