Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) crosses the street, her blue-jeaned hips swinging. The camera follows her, close on what the narrator (John Ventimiglia) calls her “strong, heavy ass.” So far, so much standard objectification. But it’s soon clear that Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity has more on its mind, as this jaunty first image is revealed to be more subjective than not. Delia understands how someone else might see her (what that standard backside shot means), and while she’s proud of her ass, aware of its power, more than anything, she knows its — and her — limits.
Delia’s is the first of “Three Portraits” in Miller’s film, adapted from her collection of seven short stories, and winner of the Grand Jury Prize and a Cinematography Award at Sundance last year. Much like that first glance at Delia, the film gives good surface, courtesy of Miller’s spare, observational prose (rendered in voiceover and dialogue) and Ellen Kuras’ incisive digital video work. She calls it a “visual poem,” an apt description. Remarkably (and instructively), Kuras (the excellent cinematographer whose credits include I Shot Andy Warhol, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, and Blow) shot this film in just 16 days; the resulting look is at once buoyant and concentrated, as the mini-DV camera not only keeps up with, but also feels like it initiates emotional movements.
At the same time, however, Personal Velocity poses crucial questions about that surface, about what you’re looking at, and, more importantly, how you’re looking. In part, this is a function of that spare prose — Miller’s written work leaves much to be imagined, and the film grants that same kind of space. Each of the three segments traces an evolution of longing and crisis, as each woman comes to some kind of terms, either with herself or with her circumstances. None of the segments ends with an especially cheerful resolution. Instead, each lingers just a little, as if the characters will have trajectories beyond the minutes you see them.
Delia’s tale, after that brilliantly sashaying start, quickly descends from that moment of self-confidence to a dreadful scene at dinner. As her three kids look on, her husband Kurt (David Warshovsky) launches into a horrific, unprovoked, and apparently routine rage, slamming her head into the table. Hiding in the closet, her kids screaming and Kurt mumbling his sincere and self-surprised apology, Delia comes to a realization: it’s time to leave. She sneaks out while Kurt’s asleep, first to a shelter (“Delia didn’t talk about her problems. She intimidated the other women with her silence”) and then to an old classmate’s garage.
As she begins to see herself again, reflected in eyes that are not Kurt’s, Delia also sees the distinction and connections between her self-image and her responsibilities to her kids. The film helpfully flashes back to her childhood, when she learned how to use sex to her advantage, despite and because of her own sense of distance: “Delia felt separate from her breasts and kind of awed by them.” During this voiceover, she appears jerking off a series of equally awed boys: “They were powerless, rapt. She did it for free; it was her vocation.” That Delia, now waitressing at a stereotypically dingy diner, reclaims herself through just such activity, is unsurprising, sad, and moving: following an encounter with a local kid (Leo Fitzpatrick) who recalls her high school conquests, she sits in her car as the sun sets. Framed by her windshield, she smiles and pauses, at once caught and resilient.
Where Delia’s developing self-awareness is more visible than vocal, the second section, “Greta,” features a painfully articulate Manhattan cookbook editor (Parker Posey). Though Greta has access to more resources than Delia, she’s facing similar limits of expectations and desires: hers and everyone else’s. Years ago, she gave up law school as a way to rebel against her big-deal attorney father (Ron Leibman). Now she’s feeling increasingly frustrated with her chosen career and worse, with her terminally sweet grad student husband Lee (Tim Guinee). Precise when it comes to her domestic routines and her appearance — her designer suits, her stylish pumps, her perfect haircut — Greta attends to her life with the same kind of ruthlessness that she brings to her editing: anything even slightly superfluous must go.
As she’s wondering what to cut next, Greta suddenly lands a choice job editing a young superstar’s second novel (because he’s heard of her capacity for merciless cutting). She begins to test herself, cheating on Lee with the charismatic, self-absorbed writer (though, as a flashback reveals, such behavior isn’t new for her), celebrating her promotion at a party thrown by her father, to whom she hasn’t spoken in years. She’s changed, Greta tells herself, she has ambition. And now, she’s “going to dump her beautiful husband like a redundant paragraph.”
Greta’s self-awareness and selfishness aren’t exactly admirable, but she’s figured out something like a survival strategy. The focus of the third section, Paula (Fairuza Balk), is slightly less transparent, and less inclined to detail her concerns in words. A kohl-eyed punk in the midst of trouble with her boyfriend Vincent (Seth Gilliam), Paula goes out for a drink, meets a new guy, and heads off down the street with him. At that very instant, a car comes barreling down the street and hits her companion, leaving him dead. Terrified, she takes off, finds her car, and leaves town (the car accident is the film’s “gimmick,” as all the stories touch on the story of this accident, underlining that they all take place at the same time).
En route to nowhere in particular, Paula picks up a 15-year-old hitchhiker named Kevin (Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci). He talks even less than she does, his pale face sunk into his chest. Almost in spite of herself, Paula starts to mother him, purchasing two dozen Dunkin’ Donuts; then, in search of her own connections, she leaves him waiting in her car while she stops by to visit her mother (Patti D’Arbanville), whom she hasn’t seen in years. Not unlike Greta’s experience, this reunion with an absent/rejected parent doesn’t go so well, but it serves a purpose. Paula can see who she doesn’t want to be.
Balk has always been a physical performer, her limbs weirdly animated and expressive; here, she’s subtler and looser, perhaps inspired by the liveliness of that little digital camera. As odd and alone as Paula clearly feels, she’s also hopeful, or embodies hope. Her story, like the others in Personal Velocity, allows sympathy without resorting to heavy-handed redemption, insight without instruction. Imperfect, inspired, and shifty, the film never stops moving.