Personal Velocity opens with a lyrical, impressionistic credit sequence of little girls on swings. Music that plays like a variation on Bach’s Prelude in C Major underscores the sunlight-drenched scene. It leads the way into a movie of handheld-camera verite naturalism punctuated by heavy voiceover narration, risky freeze frames, and extended flashbacks. The style shouldn’t work, but it does as writer-director Rebecca Miller displays a level of aesthetic bravado and control that belies this being only her second feature film.
Personal Velocity is made up of three short stories, each about and named after a white female protagonist. The first deals with Delia (Laura Finelli), whose buxom chest and behind made her feel empowered over the boys in high school. Now near thirty and married for twelve years to an abusive husband, the older Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) steals away her children and flees to a woman’s shelter before finding refuge with old high school acquaintance Fay McDougherty (Mara Hobel). Delia becomes a waitress at a local diner where Mylert (Leo Fitzpatrick), the short-order cook’s son, lusts after her.
The performances in “Delia” are pitch perfect except young and old Delia do not look at all alike. Imagining the voluptuous Finelli transforming into the scrawny Sedgwick is nigh impossible.Miller tries a little too hard to be provocative in the story’s depiction of wife-beating and of children who curse vicariously.Judy Becker’s immaculate set design appears to best effect in this first story. Each room emerges as fully lived in, cluttered from floor to ceiling with fitting knickknacks that enhance the feel for who and what the characters are.
The heroine of the second story is 28-year old book editor Greta Hershkovitz (Parker Posey). Greta distanced herself from her once-beloved father, Avram (Ron Leibman), a famous and successful lawyer, when she found him cheating on her fragile mother, Maroushka (Kaluska Poventud). Not long after Avram left Maroushka, she died from cancer. It doesn’t trouble Greta that her father thinks her dropping out of Harvard law school and marrying the unambitious Lee (Tim Guinee) are attacks directed against him. When a hot, young writer from Laos, Thavi Matola (Joel De La Fuente), asks for Greta to edit his next book, her career skyrockets. Greta and Thavi begin groping each other during editing sessions, and suddenly she is questioning her loving and safe but humdrum life with Lee.
Greta is easily Parker Posey’s best role in years. Posey captures all of Greta’s self-absorbed giddiness while, for once, reining in her usual over-the-top crassness. Greta’s story is the strongest of the three, no doubt since it takes place in the milieu with which Miller, the daughter of Arthur Miller, is most familiar. She carefully observes Greta’s hypocrisy in engaging in affairs of her own despite being hurt by her father’s infidelity.
Each of the first two stories ends with the characters hearing a news report about a fatal car accident, and that links them to the third. Paula (Fairuza Balk) lives in Brooklyn with her Haitian boyfriend, Vincent (Seth Gilliam). After an argument in which she is unable to tell Vincent she is pregnant, Paula goes to a bar where she leaves with a Norwegian suitor. A car comes out of nowhere killing him. The confused and somewhat superstitious Paula flees the scene and impulsively decides to visit her estranged mother (Patti D’Arbanville) upstate. Along the way, she picks up a 15-year old hitchhiker named Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci), who turns out to be severely injured from an apparent beating.
Paula’s story is the weakest, depending too much on quirky coincidences, and Miller goes overboard with the symbolism. Paula and Kevin are clearly meant to mirror each other as runaways, and just as Paula finds herself on the verge of aborting one child, she suddenly finds herself mothering another. Miller actually shows Kevin sucking on his thumb while Paula says, “He’s just a baby.” Pucci gives an understated yet powerful performance while Balk provides Paula with believable compassion amidst an overwhelming insecurity that verges on neurosis.
Having written the three short stories the film is based on, Miller might be a little too attached to her prose as the voiceover goes on for entire passages. At times the movie would seem like pictures attached to an audio book were it not for the poetic power Miller’s imagery attains. Personal Velocity was shot on digital video and the movie does not escape that low-resolution, dulled-color DV look. Still, it makes the most of its limitations with careful lighting. It’s not the High-Definition look of Attack of the Clones, but it’s far superior to the likes of Chuck & Buck.
In all the stories, Miller shows a strong concern with the interaction among different social classes. Each female protagonist resides on a different social stratum – Delia is a working class waitress, Greta is an underachieving upper class book editor, and Paula is a middle class slacker. Class signifiers abound from pickup trucks to games of chess, Dunkin Donuts to The New York Times. Greta goes to trendy night clubs while Paula finds herself in ritzy bars. Delia resents needing the help of middle-American Fay just as Avram looks down on Lee’s complacency.
Each of the stories in Personal Velocity leaves the viewer wanting even more.