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Personal Velocity

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 06/07/03 18:23:09

"3 Women"
5 stars (Awesome)

Personal Velocity is subtitled “Three Portraits”. It’s composed of three half-hour segments, each an engaging story of a young woman making an important decision and embarking on a new life course. The title connotes propulsion from one situation into another.

Shot on digital video, the stories are announced by a number and a name. “1: Delia” is about a tough mother (Kyra Sedgwick) of three children acknowledging the violence in her family and taking steps to regain her power. In “2: Greta”, an undervalued book editor (Parker Posey) unexpectedly has her ambition rekindled, prompting her to reassess her relationships. A freak accident affects Paula (Fairuza Balk) in the final part. Wondering if her survival is an omen, she offers a lift to a teenage hitchhiker.

Writer-director Rebecca Miller, who incidentally is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, has adapted three of her own short stories. She employs a voiceover to fill in the gaps, sometimes relying too much on words, rather than images, to tell the story. It’s a shame because the cinematography and performances are sufficient to make the situations clear. Miller and cinematographer Ellen Kuras shot on video in real houses and apartments. The rationale was practicality, but a fringe benefit is added immediacy and intimacy.

After a while, I thawed to the authorial intrusion, weakened by the beauty of some of the narrator’s phrases. The pregnant Paula’s unwanted baby is an “ache without pain”; her dreams have dwindled to “scattered ambitions”. Other passages are (intentionally?) humorously, overripe: Greta “felt the ambition drain out of her life like pus from a lanced boil”.

What’s clever about Personal Velocity is how cohesively the three apparently separate sections fit together. The only narrative link is Paula’s accident - both Delia and Greta hear a news report about it. But each story shares a driving forward momentum and common themes. Miller dedicates the film to her mother, and motherhood is significant for each of the women. We also learn that the parents of Delia, Greta and Paula are all divorced or separated.

The performances are superb, especially those of the three lead women. Kyra Sedgwick is necessarily distancing, but not alienating, as the wounded Delia. Parker Posey manages to be both sophisticated and girlish, in the film’s funniest episode. Recalling her only from Almost Famous (as the groupie who slams into a wall while running alongside the tour bus), Fairuza Balk is a revelation. Her confusion and compassion shine through a character whose capricious quirkiness could otherwise have been merely irritating.

The advantage of its short fiction origins is that we jump straight into each segment, without needless ado. We’re witnessing lives in flux - all three women have a refreshingly complicated existence both preceding and subsequent to what we see on screen. I was thoroughly engrossed during Personal Velocity and I came out with Michael Rohatyn’s simple and poignant score ringing in my head. I continued mapping webs of connection between the three stories all the way home.

The film evoked for me the surprise pleasure of receiving an unanticipated gift.

If the 50th Sydney Film Festival were a restaurant, Personal Velocity would consist of three courses, each perfectly fine on their own but together combining to produce an exquisite blend of flavours.

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