Cast: Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk. Rated: R.
Sometimes it takes one movie to illustrate the shortcomings
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
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