A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Wandering through a bookstore a few weeks ago, I picked up The Best American Short Stories 2002, and it launched me into a mara-thon of short story reading: The O. Henry Prize Awards 2002, the collected stories of Alice Munro, Ha Jin, Michael Chabon and William Trevor, and even one evening the works of Mr. Henry himself, long waiting on a distant shelf.
I mention this because it was a well-timed preparation for Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity," which films three of her own short stories in segments of about half an hour. This was the Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance 2002. I was in the mood for these focused, economic stories, in which we plunge into the middle of a life, witness crucial developments, and end with a moment of bittersweet insight into the character. If novels and feature films are about the arc of a life or at least a significant portion of one, short stories and films are about unexpected moments of truth: "epiphanies," James Joyce called them.
Miller's characters are Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), Greta (Parker Posey) and Paula (Fairuza Balk). These three actresses almost always appear in interesting work, often from the indie segment, and their casting is a clue about the movie: It is likely to be about specific, not generic, women, and in one way or another they will be defiantly out of step. They also share big problems about men: fathers, husbands, lovers, dates. Delia is a battered wife, once famed as a high school slut. Greta edits cookbooks, until a famous novelist asks her to handle his next novel. Paula is running away from her life when she picks up a hitchhiker who is running away from a worse one. All three women have problems with men, and none of them find the solution in this film--which is, I think, a recommendation.
Paula's segment touched me the most. Balk's Paula is a resilient woman with much to be resilient about. She's pregnant. She has just narrowly escaped one of those senseless accidents that can forever change your life. Shaken, she gets in her car and starts driving and finds herself at her mother's home. Her mother's new husband is a jerk, and her mother won't defend her daughter against him. Paula picks up a sullen, sad, withdrawn young hitchhiker and gets a sudden insight both into what has happened to him--and how it has wounded and hardened him. What she learns is that she still has feelings, can care, is not as crippled as she thinks.