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By Merle Bertrand | June 9, 2003

Nature vs. Nurture; a debate over which one influences us more that’s raged for years and will continue to do so for years to come. “Manito,” the grimly haunting directorial debut from Eric Eason provides ample evidence for both.
The Washington Heights section of Manhattan is in the process of throwing off its well-earned unsavory reputation. But these things take time. The neighborhood that Manny (Leo Minaya) grew up in is vastly different from the crack-infested jungle his older brother Junior (Frankie G.) knew. Junior served time rather than turn on his father — and boss — after getting busted during a narcotics sting operation. That his father never even visited him in jail only embittered Junior more. Now fighting to rebuild his life through a semi-legitimate painting company, he shuns his dad and refuses to allow him near the rest of the family.
Manny, on the other hand, represents the new face of Washington Heights. Bright and college-bound, the high school Salutitorian has his whole future in front of him. But when a random series of tragic events strikes after Manny’s graduation party, his impulsive response changes that future forever.
“Manito” starts out slowly and, truth be told, portrays its characters fairly unsympathetically. This is especially true of Junior who comes across as a real jerk throughout most of the film. Gradually, however, the pieces begin to coalesce; the vital background information revealed to permit some empathy for him to creep in. Indeed, the biggest surprise of “Manito” is how the viewer feels as much if not more sympathy for Junior than for Manny by film’s end.
With “Manito”‘s raw portrayal of its characters and stripped-down cinematography, the undercurrent of impending tragedy is palpable. Still, one isn’t really prepared either for the sheer senselessness of it when that tragedy strikes, nor for the sense of despair the film’s conclusion leaves us with. For whereas there may be hope for Manny’s neighborhood, this gritty film demostrates that the hope extracts its payment from good kids like Manny.

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