" 'Personal Velocity' is an indie that watches as three women (Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk) escape from evil men who oppress them," wrote an idiot in a great newspaper some weeks ago in one of those awful season preview pieces. It just shows the dangers of too much attitude and too few facts.
"Personal Velocity" is as far as possible from the kind of rigid feminist dogma that our correspondent (moi) presumed would inform the work. Instead of embracing agitprop about the generalized virtue of women and the generalized evil of men, it embraces reality, humanity and compassion, as leavened by wisdom and wit. It is, in short, a terrific film, maybe two-thirds of the best film of the year.
Writer-director Rebecca Miller, using digital video technology, works from three of her own short stories, and one sees immediately that she's a master of the form. She understands that a short story is not a novel. It's a brief illumination in which an entire life or a phase of life is encapsulated in a single moment. It helps if, while evoking the moment, she evokes as well the life, in all its gnarled, sputtery, incandescent awfulness and grace. And it's even better if she can do this without sermonizing or propagandizing. Better still if she can do it quickly.
But Miller demonstrates yet another great attribute, which is range. In these three tales, she evokes three worlds, and they couldn't be further apart, though they are united in time (now) and place (in and around New York). And all happen immediately after a weird traffic accident, which is reported on the radio in two of the stories and experienced in the last. Maybe that's too clever. What is important is that in each case, one immediately feels the author's comfort, the authenticity of gesture and word and even the accuracy in small stuff like furniture and shoes.
In the first of the three portraits, Kyra Sedgwick departs from form as a peppy, pretty gal and plays instead that most pitiable of creatures, the battered woman. It's almost more than you can watch. The setting is a chilled place in the sticks, the milieu rural blue-collar. She's got three kids and a hardscrabble life and a husband who just can't keep his hands off her, except that when he touches her, those hands are balled into fists. The evocation of ugly domestic violence, spurting raggedly to reality and then just as quickly disappearing, is truly terrifying.
And after the last beating, Delia Wurtzle (Sedgwick) puts the three kids in the old car and heads off to a new life. Problem: no friends, no family, no money. After a brief stay in a home for battered women where the pieties of the counselor sicken her, she moves upstate and an old acquaintance (another high school outcast; Delia was the fast girl, Fay was the fat girl) puts her up. She goes to work in a diner where her immediate problem is a jerk of a kid who tries pathetically to put some moves on her, his zitty face and dirty teeth his best maneuvers.
Yet Miller makes us understand what Delia needs more than anything for any shot at spiritual wholeness: It is, however briefly, however transitorily, the sense of control over a transaction. The transaction itself may be meaningless, even squalid as it is here, yet it's one of those gestures immense with meaning and you can see, in Delia's post-transaction smile, the sense of self-esteem that will be the foundation of her resurrection and new life. What a fabulous moment and what a life is contained in that brisk, brief little smile.
How far from that could you get? Hmm, a spaceship would be one guess and a submarine another (though a spaceship and a sub wouldn't be that far apart). But how about upscale literary New York? In the second portrait Parker Posey plays Greta, the It Girl of publishing. Miller (whose father is the famous playwright) clearly knows this world, and again the swift precision of her evocation is stunning. Greta is a low-ranking editor and her personal baggage soon becomes clear -- she was more or less ruined by her famous radical lawyer dad when he deserted Greta's mother for a younger woman. In revenge, Greta dropped out of law school and took up cookbook editing.
But Greta is too smart to fail. She thinks she's happily married to a pleasant fact-checker at the New Yorker (loved that touch!), but through a series of whimsical developments she becomes the editor of a hot young novelist, played by Joel de la Fuente. The two have a quasi-sexual professional relationship, but Greta always says no, though (graphically) turned on. She loves her husband.
Then the novelist's book hits big, and suddenly, against her wishes, she's what her father was: a star. She's made it. In her world, she's famous. And she realizes, regretfully, that not only is she what he is, but more, and sadly, she is him. She knows what will happen next; that insight hits with the weight of an anvil and has the sting of harsh truth to it.
I will confess some problems with the third of the stories, in which Fairuza Bulk plays Paula, a downtown girl on the run. Weird circumstances -- that traffic accident -- propel her from that life, with its clubs and blue hair, back to the burbs where we assume she was born. She seeks out her mom, now with a new man, and has an unsatisfactory conversation. She deals with the man in her life over the phone. Her pregnancy emerges. Ultimately she reluctantly agrees to return home. And then she picks up a hitchhiking boy, who is the shivering survivor of some grotesque event: He himself has been beaten and is demoralized.
Paula's pathology appears to be rooted in her sense of responsibility. She cannot escape it, and clearly the impending birth of a child has warped her in serious ways. She fears she's not up to it. Now, on the road with this desperate creature, she feels she must become the runaway boy's caretaker, and (I'm guessing here) in doing that she re-experiences all the things about life that terrify her. Then he takes his fate in his own hand and the results for Paula are -- now here's an astonishing development -- truly liberating.
The movie isn't really about liberation, however. It's really about people more or less understanding who they are and why they must be that person. Such intimate psychological dramas rarely make it to a screen filled with explosions and bad comedy. "Personal Velocity" is the rare exception.
Personal Velocity (86 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for brief violence, strong sexuality and ugly domestic violence.