PERSONAL VELOCITY | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Chyck Flyck

Four women:

1. Delia, 34. With "dirty blond hair and a heavy ass in blue jeans that looked just fine." The daughter of a '60s hippie who invited Seventh Day Adventists into his subsistence shack to rap with them, until one day an Adventist told him he was going to Hell, at which point Dad punched him out -- which, incidentally, he sort of stopped doing to his wife a few years earlier (sort of). Once Delia developed breasts, and learned that sex gave her power over men (sort of), she married a man who said he loved her but who actually hated her, and who didn't have any Adventists to hit, so Delia had to suffice. One day, her face bruised from making forced contact with the family dinner table, she takes her three kids and leaves. Starring Kyra Sedgwick as Delia.

2. Greta, 28. Jewish, Manhattan-bred, Harvard-educated lawyer, working as a cookbook editor until a trendy young gay Laotian-American memoirist asks her to be his editor. She's married to Lee Schneeweiss, a New Yorker fact-checker, dissertationist (on cannibalism) and Gentile who's as pure and tender as his name. Greta has a problem with fidelity (an affair here, some tongue-swapping there), and she's estranged from her ruthless and demanding father, New York's hottest shot of a lawyer, who now has a 3-year-old by the newest member of his firm. Starring Parker Posey as Greta.

3. Paula, early 20s. Ran away two years ago from her upstate home that contained Mom and Mom's new man, who gets surly and defensive around her. Living in Brooklyn with Vincent, a gentle Haitian. On a boozy night out, fate and a reckless driver kill the man she's walking with rather than killing her. On a reconciliation visit to her mother's house, her first in two years, she gives a ride to a quiet, frightened, beat-up street kid. Starring Fairuza Balk as Paula.

The dialectical lives of these three women come to us from: 4. Rebecca Miller. Daughter of Arthur. Yale-educated painter, in which she dabbled for a while. Then she acted a bit. Now a writer of short stories, and cinematic adapter of Personal Velocity, her book of them.

If you're wondering what the privileged daughter of America's premier playwright knows about the lives of women like Delia, Greta and Paula, you'll wonder even more after seeing the triptych of stories in Personal Velocity, which is so well-intentioned and seriously made that you just might like it anyway. But I found Miller's film to be coldly intellectual and mechanically didactic despite (or because of) its carefully staged canvas of emotion.

When Delia, who has a life-preserving chip on her shoulder born of the world's cruelty to her, breaks down one day, all you can really admire about the requisite moment is Sedgwick's technique. When Greta, who develops a head as big as her arrogant father's (Ron Leibman), decides with a glance to leave her unsuspecting husband (Tim Guinee), the film's incessant narration -- Miller can't seem to give up the ghost of her own lugubrious, analytical prose -- robs the pleasingly petulant Posey of her subtlest turn. By the time Paula pleads with Vincent (Seth Gilliam) to allow her to bring the brutalized boy home so they can care for him, you're so ready for a moment of unadulterated sensation that it's wonderfully liberating, even if it does lead Miller to unfurl a set of meditative clichés about renewal, inner peace and the life-giving force of Womyn.

Maybe you have to be a woman to appreciate what Miller tries to do in Personal Velocity. But I don't think so, nor do I see what distinguishes her film from a Lifetime Original Movie, except for a bit of graphic domestic violence early on, and of course its digital video, which looks less like a point of view than a series of choppy, expedient, badly lighted accidents. Just look at the films of Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Mi vida loca), whose roughly hewn women soar with passionate complexity, or those of Nancy Savoca (Dogfight, Household Saints), bittersweet metaphors for the graceful suffering in women's lives.

Conversely, Personal Velocity is too much head, with lots of things to communicate, and with a monotonous and edifying determination to communicate them. It doesn't feel lived in by its creator, so it's hard to take much pleasure from its exegesis of ideas. The stuff in Personal Velocity that survives Miller's choices comes mostly in the two stories set in Manhattan. With paeans to Woody Allen and his "Whores of Mensa," Greta is a comfortably brittle New York stereotype, traveling in a circle of sophisticates (Wallace Shawn plays her boss) who never cease to entertain. And in Paula's edgy street-life world, we see at times the poignant struggle of an emotional shipwreck trying to find safe harbor. * *