Personal Velocity

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

PERSONAL VELOCITY

5/10

Personal Velocity – Three Portraits : USA 2002 : Rebecca Miller : 86mins

Personal Velocity feels less like a film version of Miller’s own story-collection as an 86-minute promo for the book. There’s no attempt made to mask the material’s literary origins, with the three tales presented as separate, numbered chapters named after their central characters: Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), Greta (Parker Posey) and Paula (Fairuza Balk). These are three women at a critical turning-point in their lives, in three different parts of New York State, each episode culminating on the same day – signalled by TV news reports of a traffic accident.

An unseen, omniscient narrator (Jon Ventimiglia) contributes extensive voice-over throughout, the contributions sounding like direct readings from the book: “She felt the ambition drain out of her like pus from a lanced boil,” he intones at one stage. In an attempt to ‘cinema things up’ a bit, director Miller makes copious use of freeze-frame and flashbacks (editor: Sabine Hoffman), touches of fast and slow motion, plus much rough-edged, hand-held digital-video camerawork in collaboration with cinematographer Ellen Kuras.

This is most jarringly effective in the first episode, in which Delia flees her abusive husband (David Warshofsky) – spurred by a kitchen-table incident which shows how domestic violence can erupt with terrifying speed and ferocity (it’s reminiscent of a similarly shocking kitchen-table moment in Dolores Claiborne). In fact, the ‘Delia’ segment is easily far the most memorable and effective of the three, an economic and well-observed vignette showcasing a compelling, convincingly tough performance from a never-better Sedgwick – her impassive face during the climactic scene where she gives a cocky youth (a typecast Leo Fitzpatrick) a hand-job is a master-class in wordless acting.

The other two sections don’t make anything like such efficient use of their brisk 20-odd minute running-times, though Posey’s terrific comic gifts ensure the ‘Greta’ episode – in which a Last Days of Disco-ish book-editor’s sudden professional success makes her question her supposedly happy marriage – is never less than watchable, despite its sitcom feel, thin narrative and over-familiar ‘tinkly piano’ score for its Manhattan settings.

The ‘Paula’ section is even less satisfactory – Balk is goth-punk-type drifter traumatised when a man she’s just met in a bar is killed in the accident that obliquely links the three tales. Driving home in a stunned daze, she picks up a young hitch-hiker who turns out to have more problems than even Paula herself. Balk doesn’t have so much to work with as Sedgwick or Posey, but the main problems are Miller’s over-reliance on close-ups, plus her script’s overwhelmingly predictable final ‘twist’ and trite closing image.

Though the central performances are strong and engaging, Personal Velocity fights a constant losing battle against its ‘un-cinematic’ aspects. There’s the distracting emphasis on the stories’ literary source – Ventimiglia’s narration is of the dry, bemused variety that works fine in shorts, but loses its impact stretched over a whole feature. And Miller never quite gets away from the edge of TV-movie territory – these are very much “women’s stories” exploring specific social issues, while the men are peripheral, undeveloped, often bland and/or gratingly unsympathetic. By the end, audiences (especially male viewers) may feel like they’ve just spent an hour and a half in support-group therapy.

7th January, 2003
(seen on DVD, 5th January)

by Neil Young