White trash Delia Shunt — “rhymes with cunt” (Kyra Sedgwick) — lives in a destructive marriage molded by her abusive hippie dad and premature breasts. Greta (Parker Posey) married safe and sure Lee and edits cookbooks to stave off her addiction to ambition; and Paula (Fariuza Balk) runs from rejection and near-death in a wood-grained station wagon with a mutilated hitchhiker. They’re three women connected by strange turns, accidental epiphanies and the craft of fiction.
Writer-director Rebecca Miller (Angela), daughter of legendary playwright Arthur Miller, has gone from art to acting to fiction writing to no-frills filmmaking. Her visually fractured prose portraits look as if constructed from overexposed to fading ’70s snapshots in motion, emanating aesthetic reflections of her painting degree from Yale. Based on Miller’s collection of short stories of the same name, Personal Velocity seems tailor-made for art-house audiences. It still cradles that short-story essence — threaded together by an all-knowing narration that peels off the women’s immediate personas to reveal their hidden desires and dirty secrets — but takes it to a place that stretches just beyond the page.
When in trouble, Delia turns to earlier feats of high school pleasure to give her the power to face life, fleshed out by Sedgwick shaking her frightening, lust-manifesting mean ass around like a time bomb. And Balk effectively drives Paula wide-eyed and squirrel-erratic down a goalless road fueled by donuts.
Unfortunately, the strongest, most capricious story (Greta’s) is placed in the middle, which softens the impact of the entire package. As Greta, Posey dissolves any annoying bonds to her string of spastic and neurotic indie-film characters. She emerges as a fully multidimensional person who morphs from slightly despicable to grasping us — and herself — with a newfound compassion. Greta’s story (and Posey’s performance) prevail with a balance of mixed anxieties and barefaced entertainment.
Personal Velocity merges what we determine on the surface with churning internal bits of what really matters to Delia’s, Greta’s and Paula’s self-worth. Everyone comes into their own, at their own time, in their own way, triggered by circumstance and a slap in the face by fate.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, south of Maple, Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.