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Personal Velocity ***½

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Things fall apart: Posey, Tim Guinee share a rare laugh in Velocity

(Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune)

Cast: Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk. Rated: R.

Sometimes it takes one movie to illustrate the shortcomings of another.

Consider the differences between Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity and Callie Khouri's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Both bill themselves as serious-minded portraits of contemporary women. But Ya-Ya Sisterhood is really about stereotypes, endearingly outrageous Southern belles borrowed from countless movies before it. The characters are more written than real, while the drama is implausible from start to finish. This is a high-gloss Hollywood film relying on time-tested Hollywood clichés.

Personal Velocity is something else, an antidote of sorts to Ya-Ya Sisterhood. A triptych that tells the stories of three women struggling to maintain their composure as their lives spiral out of control, it has less slickness but far more genuine feeling. Shot in the suddenly trendy digital video format -- the same medium employed without much dramatic effect in director (and Personal Velocity producer) Gary Winick's Tadpole, the film is a collage of understated images so intimate and seemingly authentic that the viewer is almost involuntarily drawn into the stories, like a voyeur stealing a glimpse into the lives of three strangers.

Ellen Kuras's subtle cinematography works well with Miller's carefully observed character portraits, and by the end of the movie Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), Greta (Parker Posey) and Paula (Fairuza Balk) no longer seem like strangers; they're more like close friends whose pasts, presents and futures have been movingly laid out for us.

Remarkably, though Personal Velocity takes us through a series of narrative voiceovers (provided by John Ventimiglia), flashbacks and snapshots, it never loses its way or burdens us with unnecessary details. There is a clarity to Miller's storytelling, and, at 86 minutes in length, the film is as economical as it is insightful.

The three central figures are engaged in power struggles with the men in their lives, none moreso than Delia, an aging beauty trapped in a marriage to an abusive husband.

As a teenager, Delia used sex as a means of empowerment; now she lives at the mercy of Kurt (David Warshofsky), the man she loves despite the beatings and her dawning realization that Kurt despises her. Delia has reached her breaking point, though, and after her husbands final violent outburst she packs her bags, takes the kids and embarks on a journey to rebuild her now-fragile psyche.

Sedgwick delivers her strongest performance to date as the emotionally battered Delia, bringing to the role just the right blend of weathered beauty, world-weary toughness and thinly veiled vulnerability.

Posey's Greta is similarly conflicted. Dissatisfied with her oh-so-ordinary life, she is an ambitious (though hardly successful) cookbook editor trapped in a dull marriage to the bland Lee (Tim Guinee). When Greta gets the opportunity to work with a hotshot author, played with a nice touch of smarmy self-assurance by Joel de la Fuente, she seizes her chance to jump-start her career. And yet, as she stumbles down the path that will lead to a job at a major Manhattan publishing house, she lacks direction, and her barely disguised malaise, compounded by guilt over her own infidelity, threatens to lead to a breakdown.

Like Sedgwick, Posey brings the right mix of emotions to her role. She's chatty, bursting with a nervous, neurotic energy that lends a sadly comic undertone to her performance. Yet she is also brooding, driven, filled with frustrations and emotionally withdrawn from the men who seek to control her. As a skillful editor who never misses an opportunity to make a poor decision in her personal life, she is self-aware enough to know that her world is unraveling, but self-destructive enough to be totally incapable of preventing it.

Unfortunately, Greta is a tough act to follow. Personal Velocity is based on Miller's own short stories, and the film's third, involving Paula, was the only one written with the movie in mind. That may account in some way for its weaknesses.

Paula is a skittish free spirit, jarred by her role in a fatal car crash and the news that she's pregnant. Sensing the need to escape - a common theme in the movie, which was originally titled Enter Fleeing -- she hops in her car and heads to upstate New York, accompanied by a mysterious young hitchhiker (Lou Taylor Pucci) who, we later discover, is covered with cuts and bruises. Paula briefly visits her mother to tell her of the pregnancy, but barely gets out the words before breaking down in tears and fleeing again, this time returning home to her concerned boyfriend, Vincent (Seth Gilliam).

Why is the hitchhiker cut and scarred? Why does Paula view her mother with such apparently deep-rooted distrust? And what is the nature of Paula's relationship with Vincent, a seemingly decent fellow whose character feels vague and unfinished? Those questions are never answered, and the story, like Paula herself, seems lacking in direction.

Balk gives a competent performance, and the exchange between Paula, her mother (Patti D'Arbanville) and the mother's caustic boyfriend (the deliciously repellent David Patrick Kelly) is compelling and tense. But Paula's story drifts along toward a pat, almost arbitrary conclusion that feels more contrived than anything else in this otherwise captivating movie. -- Rossiter Drake

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