One of the most distinctive--and richly gratifying--aspects of "Personal
Velocity" is that its characters do not resemble screenwriting creations
so much as figures who have wandered out directly from the pages of
a finely detailed short story. The same could be said about the overall
tone and structure, which reminds one of a literary masterwork rather
than a cinematic one, and no wonder. In adapting her same-titled 2001
novel--a collection of fifteen short stories, each one centering on
a different woman's road to independence and catharsis--writer-director
Rebecca Miller has truncated the anthology down to three stories,
each one lasting just under thirty minutes.
While there is a subtle physical link between the three tales, they
never intersect, and much of what relates them is purely on a thematic
level. It is a testament to Miller's powerful handle of the material,
then, that by the time the end credits roll the picture's parts have
somehow come together to form a fully satisfying whole. There is a
poignancy and an uncompromising honesty to these characters, as each
one tries to break free from the restrictions of the men in their
life who are holding them back from being their own complete person.
And, most remarkably, the three central females come alive as few
film characters do in a restrained time period of roughly 28 minutes per story.
The undervalued Kyra Sedgwick (1996's "Phenomenon") stars as "Delia,"
a mother of three children who has outwardly flaunted her sexuality
around since she was a preteen. Fed up for the final time with being
physically abused by her loutish husband (David Warshofsky), Delia
packs her suitcase and leaves with her kids. Suddenly on her own,
she must make a decision about what she plans to do in order to keep
her children safe and herself feeling worthy of something.
Parker Posey (2002's "The Sweetest Thing") is "Greta," a Manhattan-based
cookbook editor who has fooled herself into believing she is happily
married to Lee (Tim Guinee) until an acclaimed author, Thavi Matola
(Joel de la Fuente) gives her a big professional break as his editor.
As Greta's success rises, she is exposed to her problems with fidelity
over the years and realizes, to her astonishment, that she could leave
Lee at any time and it wouldn't make the least bit of difference to her.
Finally, Fairuza Balk (2002's "Deuces Wild") is "Paula," a young pregnant
woman who has left the security of her boyfriend (Seth Gilliam) for
an aimless road trip that leads to several chance experiences, including
the sudden death of a just-met acquaintance and the picking up of
a severely wounded teenage hitchhiker, Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci). Paula
suspects these encounters are a sort of mystical sign that she cannot ignore.
Out of three stories that are all nearly equal gems, "Delia" comes
out on top. Sedgwick, in her first major role in several years, reminds
one of why she is such a wonderful performer, the way she can embody
the character she is portraying with both comic relish and true humanism.
More than that, there is a beauty in its view of a woman who has never
made any qualms about the sexual power she has over men, and takes
it to her full advantage. Delia's theme, the classic Mel McDaniel
country song, "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On," is an incendiary addition
on Miller's part that packs quite a punch when mixed with the avante
garde visuals, shot on mini-DV by cinematographer Ellen Kuras (2001's "Blow").
Following closely behind is "Paula," which takes on a dreamier, almost
surreal tone than the other two, and leads to the most thought-provoking
conclusion. Fairuza Balk has never been better, and the alternate
pain, confusion, and hope that Paula holds makes for an invigoratingly deep film role.
Finally, "Greta" is the least of the three endeavors if only because
its character arc is the least earth-shattering. Still, the story
is three-dimensional and emotionally rewarding in its subtler character
psychology. Parker Posey adds depth and unexpected humor to Greta,
a woman who is rising to the peak of career, yet feeling increasingly
alienated from her kind husband.
One of the delights in viewing "Personal Velocity" is the way writer-director
Rebecca Miller--as in her short stories--progressively peels away
layer upon layer of the characters' past, present, and future to form
an enriching, enveloping experience. If there is a complaint about
the film, it is that the stories all could have benefited from further
development. At the same time, Delia, Greta, and Paula rank as three
of the most multilayered and sympathetic female characters of the
year. As each of them searches for their place in the world, Miller
digs into their very minds to find an unblinking, flawed humanity
everyone can relate to. She understands these women, and through Miller,
so do we. "Personal Velocity" is one of the strongest independent features of 2002.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman