With near perfect adherence to the original text, director Rebecca Miller has adapted three of the seven short stories from her book “Personal Velocity” for this engaging film about life’s turning points. She has transplanted her short, ambitiously descriptive sentences (“With relief Greta felt the ambition draining out of her like pus from a lanced boil“) from page to screen, taking advantage of the often unflattering effect of shooting in grainy digital camera to mirror the warts-and-all descriptiveness of the text. Miller has stayed so close to her own written word that those familiar with her book might be surprised to hear a man’s voice (John Ventimiglia) narrating the backgrounds of her heroines.
The stories summarized sound like fodder for a made-for-TV movie: Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) leaves her abusive husband in order to protect her three children; Greta (Parker Posey) leaves her milquetoast husband for her new career; and, Paula (Fairuza Balk) leaves childhood behind as she comes to terms with her pregnancy. Where they were discrete, the three stories are now tenuously linked by a narrative trick and geographical proximity to one another.
Each of these characters has her own source of power, from Delia’s sexuality to Greta’s intellect to Paula’s detachment, and each must use this power to attain her own ‘personal velocity’. This shorthand term for personal development and self-definition is used by Greta’s father, Avram (Ron Liebman), but is echoed in many aspects of the film. How personal velocity relates to unresolved issues with one’s parents and lovers is a theme Miller –herself the daughter of Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day Lewis—investigates with a hungry curiosity.
Kyra Sedgwick, long cast as the smiling and sympathetic best friend type, clearly relishes the role of steely-eyed, Delia, who swings her jean-clad hips from the brutal Kurt (David Warshofsky) into a hard new life fending for her kids. Parker Posey plays Greta with a deft touch and apparent ease, providing the least-self-conscious of the storylines and some much needed levity to the film. It is left to Fairuza Balk, who does an excellent job of projecting an iron will and feral impishness, to wrap up the stories with the sadly predictable “answer” to life’s big questions. Have a baby.
Each heroine is matched with one individual attribute: Delia Shunt is Courage; Greta Herskovitz is Ambition; Paula Friedrich is Hope. Perhaps Miller fears that sentimentality will prevent her characters from being “bony, rough and true” (Miller’s description of successful writing), but in taking a knife to the fat of emotions, she has left us a curiously lean dish. Although it makes some interesting insights, “Personal Velocity” never quite gets up to speed.
Parents should know that this film depicts very mature themes, including domestic violence, drug use, sexual politics, infidelity, underage sexuality, runaway teens, and child abuse.
Families who see this film should talk about how each character is influenced by her parents and by her past. If each character develops at her own “personal velocity” what does this mean for her relationships with those around her? This movie only touches on the male characters in each of the women’s lives. Why might Miller chose to make these characters two-dimensional?
Families who enjoyed this movie might wish to read the book, both for further understanding of the characters and for the other four short stories. Strongly recommended for those who like the camera feel and overall realism are the so-called “Dogme 95” films (“Italian Lessons for Beginners” and “The Celebration” in particular).