Those of a certain age – mature, intelligent, discerning – might remember an American TV sitcom of a few decades years ago called Love American Style.

It was an upbeat show that followed the complex relationships of various couples. Well, if you like a good ole rom-com then this probably isn’t the movie for you.  Manny Lewis has no car chases, no twisty-turny plots, very little swearing, and (gasp!) no explicit sex scenes. Yet it is a love story. A simple, complex, nuanced love story.

Manny (Carl Barron) is a comedian. He plays to hundreds of people, he is famous, he lives in a fabulous apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour, but he is deeply unhappy. Most of his routine exposes his complicated relationship with his father (Roy Billing).  It is a mordant routine that clearly resonates with his audiences and the film audience in general – who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with their parent/s?  But after the show, he is lonely. In his luxury apartment, he tosses and turns at night; unable to sleep, he prowls the city seeking human contact. One night he phones a sex line. But he’s not looking for sexual release – he wants to talk. And he finds a sympathetic, somewhat bemused listener.

Next day (?) he approaches another regular at his favourite café, Maria (Leeanna Walsman). Spoiler alert – Maria works on an erotic hotline. They start a friendship that develops, but not in the usual way. He is reticent and constantly second guessing himself. Luckily, he can confess his feelings to his hotline friend, and she is keen to hear his reaction to their date; but his desultory response is less than complimentary but that’s Manny.

Stendahl’s On Love is a template for their romance – Maria teaches him to dance, to enjoy life, and to love. But Manny is still unsure.  He doesn’t think he’s worthy of love because he needs to confront his demons: his motherless childhood, his abusive inept father, his unsuccessful past relationships. No matter what Maria tries, Manny always pushes her away. Manny is a love-mess.

At the heart of the movie is Manny’s emotional growth. Not since Lantana has a movie explored the complexity that is the Aussie male in love – Manny is emotionally distant, incapable of expressing emotion, and running away is his answer to difficult love situations. That’s what makes Manny Lewis an immensely enjoyable viewing experience. The viewer empathises with him while wanting to smack him. This is no Love American Style romance but it’s all the more satisfying for that.

Manny Lewis opened 12th March.

Words by Toni-Johnson Woods