Even actresses' star turns can't carry the movie far enough
"Personal Velocity' is the cinematic equivalent of those artful, intellectual short stories one reads in literary journals or the The New Yorker.
You know the kind of writing I'm talking about. Those self-consciously proletarian stories that focus on the small details that make up one day in the life of a bored housewife or a restaurateur.
These stories' resolutions always involve something like the discovery of an abandoned shoe or a dead parakeet, which is supposed to symbolize the characters' new understanding of the futility of their life. Or something.
Writer-turned-director Rebecca Miller adapted three of her own stories for the movie. Miller is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Whether this is significant is hard to say, but it's interesting enough that it deserves mention.
Each of the three tales Miller tells lasts about 30 minutes and is connected to the others by two things: a car accident and an epiphany. The accident connection is so slender as to be absurd; however, the first two characters hear about the accident on the news, while we meet a woman involved in the accident in Part 3. But it's a connection nonetheless.
Although the film itself feels so thin that it threatens to blow away in a sudden breeze, the performances in 'Personal Velocity' are superb. Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk bring vivid life to three women with radically different lives who come to quiet but momentous understandings about themselves on the same day.
In the first (and least effective) story, Sedgwick plays Delia, a Catskills housewife married to an abusive lout whom she loves. After one beating too many, she flees with her children to the home of a high school acquaintance and a job as a waitress.
While the story itself is trite and unpleasant, Sedgwick is impressive as the hardened harpy who finds her emotional escape from the nightmare of her life by returning to the slutty behavior of her teen years.
Greta (Posey) is trapped in a far more upscale prison. The happily married cookbook editor sees herself turning into her despised father as her career ambitions lead to infidelity. Posey is perhaps the best she's ever been here, as Greta struggles with her love for her low-achieving husband, her desire to jump on the fast track and her gradual understanding that her real nature may be inescapable, as distasteful as she finds it to be.
The final segment has Balk picking up a hitchhiker on the way to visit her mother. On a purely literary level, this segment is the most successful, because it manages to tie together pregnancy, death, carjacking, torture, love and abortion Ñ all without seeming heavy-handed. As cinema, however, it's something of a bore, with Balk mainly driving around a lot and buying doughnuts.
Shot on digital video for $1 million and deliberately low-tech, 'Personal Velocity' is Ñ for better or worse Ñ the kind of movie that one equated with 'indie filmmaking' before Sundance and sitcom stars inflated the budgets (and egos) of those involved.
It's a quiet movie, and a minor one. But it's well worth seeing for both the performances and the delicate dance of Miller's writing Ñ if you're the sort who enjoys small stories about regular people and abandoned shoes.