An uneven film version of Rebecca Miller’s book of the same name — it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but it never really engages the viewer on a very deep level. And it’s an absolute monument to the Curse of Independent Filmmaking; Personal Velocity is the sort of movie (of which there are far too many) that seems designed to make the viewer long for a little of the old Hollywood sellout glossy professionalism — or, at the very least, a tripod and some professional lighting equipment.
Yes, I know the movie’s all part of the digital-video explosion that makes it possible to get films made that could never be made by conventional means, but I’m neither sure that all such films deserve to be made, nor that digital video gives the filmmaker carte blanche to indulge in sloppy editing, crude camerawork and overuse of the zoom lens. The problem with “breaking away from tradition” is that it threatens to drain all the creativity out of the filmmaking process by merely substituting one formula for another. And that’s often the case with Personal Velocity.
The whole film has this sneaky feel to it — as if the director is trying to dupe the viewer into taking it all as Very Important simply because the movie is ugly to look at and not a Hollywood product. From its stellar indie cast to its jittery camerawork, from its literary pretensions (three unconnected stories about women leaving their men for various reasons) to its lazy minimalist score — it all just screams “Important.” And I’m less than convinced that it is, except maybe to hardcore fans of Rebbecca Miller’s writing. I confess I’m not familiar with her writing, but if lines like, “She felt all the ambition drain out of her like pus from a lanced boil” are typical, I’m not all that likely to plug this gap in my literary education. (Miller’s father may be Arthur Miller, but her style seems more like undigested Raymond Chandler.)
There are, however, good things about Personal Velocity, at least once you slog your way through the opening segment starring Kyra Sedgwick as Delia. It might seem — it does seem on the surface — that the story of a battered woman who runs away from her abusive husband with her two children in tow ought to be compelling. It isn’t. The characters are dull, shallow and unlikable. The only life found in this segment comes from John Ventimiglia’s narration — and that comes across more like a dramatic books-on-tape reading of Miller’s short story than anything else.
It’s instructive that the most successful segment of the film — the climactic one — uses the least narration; both the first and second segments are burdened with this literary device. It’s as if Miller doesn’t trust her abilities as a filmmaker, so she falls back on her prose as a kind of crutch to prop up the narrative. At least the second story — featuring Parker Posey as Greta — is worth propping up. Where the Sedgwick episode smacks of a kind of faux ingenuous romanticizing of the “lower depths” by someone whose personal experience with that life is largely nonexistent, the Posey segment is on surer footing. The reason is simple: It traffics in the sophisticated world of publishing, writing and editing. In other words, it exists in a world with which Miller has more than passing familiarity, and, as a result, it feels real. Here Miller isn’t afraid to be playful with her camera, and the end product is all the better for it.
The film wisely saves its best story for last. The final segment — starring Fairuza Balk as Paula, a pregnant woman who picks up a young hitchhiker (Lou Taylor Pucci) during her flight from her boyfriend — is cleverly designed to bring the movie’s tenuous connections into focus. We finally not only learn the facts behind the news bulletin we keep hearing in the background, but actually find that it’s part of Paula’s story. It’s a shrewd move, but what ultimately makes the final episode work is the fact that here Miller doesn’t literalize everything. Paula’s every move and thought isn’t dissected and explained by the narrator.
For once, Miller seems to trust her story to tell itself without so much interference — and, with any luck, she’ll learn something from it. If nothing else, she might learn that there’s power in ambiguity, and that when you don’t explain away all your mysteries, the viewer is left with something to chew on. If only the rest of the film had operated on this philosophy, I’d be a lot more inclined to forgive its often overbearing sense of its own importance.