Adapting tales from her recent short story collection of the same title, Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity" is a fresh and striking fictional triptych catching three young New York state women -- played by Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk -- at moments of life change.
Adapting tales from her recent short story collection of the same title, Rebecca Miller’s “Personal Velocity” is a fresh and striking fictional triptych catching three young New York state women — played by Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk — at moments of life change. While not tethered to Miller’s 1995 little-seen first feature “Angela,” a stunning mixture of mysticism and childhood-in-hell realism, this sophomore omnibus shares its assured directorial invention and ease with literary approaches to character psychology. Pic will be a challenge to distribute but merits careful marketing to auds hungry for unpredictable drama outside Amerindie norms.
Each seg is named after its protag and takes up a roughly equal share of overall running time. First centers on Delia (Sedgwick), a mother of three living just above the poverty line in a Catskill trailer with husband Kurt (David Warshofsky).
Bitterness underlies her everyday actions; when a tacit criticism chills the family table at dinner, Kurt abruptly lets fist fly, and the film freezes — backtracking to Delia’s sad childhood caring for a terminal-stoner dad (Brian Tarantina), her discovery of sexual power as “the high school slut” and marriage at 17.
Back in the present, Kurt’s latest extreme abuse — after savagely beating his wife, he locks her in a closet where she can hear the children screaming in terror — finally snaps Delia from stasis. While he’s passed out on the couch, she packs up the kids and drives off, landing up at the home of an old school friend (Mara Hobel).
Off-puttingly tough and suspicious, even toward those offering help, Delia reclaims a piece of her autonomous self in the darkly funny end scene: Rather than tell a horny adolescent (Leo Fitzpatrick) who’s pestered her at a waitressing job to screw off, she briskly services him in his pickup — gaining grim satisfaction from controlling the exchange.
A lighter but no less incisive tone infuses the saga of Manhattanite Greta (Posey), who at age 28 is both giddily facing the notion that perhaps she’s not a “failure” after all. Slogging as a cookbook editor at a major publishing house, Greta is surprised to find the hot, young novelist-of-the-moment (Joel de la Fuente) has specifically requested her collaboration on his new book.
Flashbacks fill in Greta’s backstory. Daughter of a famous liberal-Jewish attorney (Ron Liebman) whose exacting standards and abandonment of her mother (his second of three wives) cripples her confidence, she married Lee (Tim Guinee) because she knew he’d never leave her.
That was enough — until now. Riding high on an ambition she’d hitherto repressed, Greta fears outgrowing this sweetheart of a husband. The segment ends on a stinging moment of recognition, when she first realizes she may leave him.
Darkest and most present-tense of the three segments — if also the least satisfying — “Paula” has its Goth-punk-looking title figure (Fairuza Balk) driving upstate from Brooklyn, seized by panic.
We gradually discern some reasons: Paula is pregnant, but too ambivalent about the news to tell the live-in boyfriend (Seth Gilliam) who’d picked her runaway self off a park bench one year earlier, and had gone out partying with girlfriends instead. She sees a boy she meets in a club killed in a freak accident.
Driving without destination at first, Paula picks up forlorn youth Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci) on a rainy rural roadside. She pit-stops at her mother’s house — just long enough for us to glimpse why she left — then rushes out again. But her impulse to send the teenage hitchhiker on his way is checked by discovery that he’s hiding horrific bruises and cuts all over his body.
Filled with a maternal concern, Paula wants to take this lost lamb home. His reaction leaves her alone again, stunned yet oddly at peace. While absorbing as it unfolds, this story’s murky closing catharsis makes it the most incompletely thought-out of the trilogy.
Despite that slight letdown, “Personal Velocity” impresses with the originality of its observation, storytelling techniques and filmmaking style. Flashbacks, still-image montages, the detached yet wry commentary of the narrator (Jon Ventimiglia) and other devices lend each sequence an unpredictable vitality that never seems gratuitous or showy.
Though each of the heroines is adrift, replacing old mistakes with possible new ones, the writer-director’s p.o.v. eschews condescension or easy blame. Ditto her lead performers, particularly Sedgwick and Posey in the better developed of the three roles. Former makes a dislikable woman intriguingly flinty, while latter’s witty, reined-in work is her best since “Henry Fool.”
Texturally, pic has an off-the-cuff feel that nicely externalizes impulsive states of mind; Ellen Kuras’ DV lensing is often momentarily blinded by glare, as if squinting along with protags not at all sure where they stand. Production design by Judy Becker deftly etches in all we need to know about milieus. Michael Rohaytn’s understated score is just right. Special kudos to editor Sabine Hoffman for making narrative left-turns seem organic rather than overly clever.
Personal Velocity: Three Portraits
Delia - Kyra Sedgwick
Kurt - David Warshofsky
Pete - Brian Tarantina
Fay - Mara Hobel
Mylert - Leo Fitzpatrick
Greta - Parker Posey
Lee - Tim Guinee
Mr. Gelb - Wallace Shawn
Thavi - Joel de la Fuente
Avram - Ron Liebman
Oscar - Josh Phillip Weinstein
Max - Ben Shankman
Paula - Fairuza Balk
Kevin - Lou Taylor Pucci
Vincent - Seth Gilliam
Peter - David Patrick Kelly
Celia - Patti D'Urbanville