Lots of bad stuff happens to honest, hard-working Rust Belt folk in “Little Accidents,” a sensitive and well-meaning but rather ordinary melodrama that wouldn’t have seemed out of place as a network movie-of-the-week circa 1985. Feature debut for writer-director Sara Colangelo, expanded from her prize-winning 2010 short, shows an admirable concern for the plight of the American blue-collar worker and features a standout central performance by newcomer Boyd Holbrook (“The Host”), but suffers from predictable plotting and shallow characterizations that keep the movie from ever transcending the obvious. Given the disappointing box office returns for the starrier, similarly bleak “Out of the Furnace,” buyers will be understandably skeptical of the pic’s commercial potential.
Shot in the real coal town of Beckley, W.V., Colangelo’s film takes place in the aftermath of a fatal mining accident that has left 10 miners dead and a lot of people speculating about who’s to blame for the tragedy. The lone survivor of the incident, reticent, soft-spoken Amos Jenkins (Holbrook), finds himself at the center of the ongoing investigation and on the receiving end of much unwanted attention. Depending on what he remembers and how he remembers it, Amos could hold the entire future of the mine — and the livelihoods of those who work there — in his hands.
But this being a movie called “Little Accidents,” plural, you can be sure that this tiny Appalachian community hasn’t seen the end of its bad fortune just yet. Indeed, Colangelo’s film is about how the mine accident sets off a kind of chain reaction that eventually impacts three very different families — an ambitious structure that unfortunately relies on so many strained dramatic contrivances that some may begin to wonder if Colangelo patterned her script on a close study of Paul Haggis’ “Crash.”
Still early on, the pic introduces Kendra (Chloe Sevigny), whose husband died in the mine, leaving her to raise their two children, teenage Owen (Jacob Lofland, “Mud”) and Down syndrome-afflicted James (Beau Wright). Around the same time, we meet Diana (Elizabeth Banks), whose husband, Bill (Josh Lucas), is one of the mine’s corporate executives and a possible target in the investigation. They, too, have a teenage son, jocular golden boy JT (Travis Tope), and accident No. 2 arrives right on schedule when JT and Owen encounter each other at a secluded hangout in the woods and get into a tussle that ends with JT cracking his head open on a rock.
So, now the bourgeois family gets to experience the loss of a loved one, while prole Owen — who doesn’t report the accident for fear of the consequences — has the stain of blood on his hands. Caught up somewhere in the middle of all this is Amos, who enters into an affair with the distraught Diana (who cozies up to him at a community Bible study), perhaps because she’s really into him, perhaps because she’s trying to prevent him from testifying against her husband, or perhaps because the screenplay needs for this to happen in order to fulfill its thesis that all of us make bad decisions and that the truth will eventually set us free.
In atmospheric terms, Colangelo goes a long way toward creating an authentic milieu, from the location shooting (including in a real, working coal mine) to the gritty, natural-light 35mm photography of d.p. Rachel Morrison (“Fruitvale Station”), but her characters are disappointingly written: the laborer who must decide whether or not to blow the whistle on corruption; the executive’s wife who feels guilty about her privilege; the boy who must learn to accept the consequences of his actions.
Yet, even when they are underserved by their roles, the actors are a pleasure to watch — chiefly Holbrook, who’s been buzzed about as a potential breakout star for a while now and makes good on that promise here. He casts a vivid physical presence, folding his long, lanky frame into the decrepit pose of a physically and psychologically scarred man, and even when he’s sitting perfectly still in a scene, saying very little, he holds the camera rapt. His Amos is a good man trying to do right, but haunted by some unarticulated inner torment, and whenever Holbrook is onscreen, the movie is that much better for it. Banks impresses as well in one of her infrequent dramatic roles, while Lofland continues to prove himself a most intuitive young performer.