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Rebecca Miller, who turned 40 this year, has long been better known as the daughter of Arthur Miller and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis than as a writer and director in her own right. Her sole previous feature is 1995’s Angela, about two sisters and their homemade religious rituals. Gorgeous and eerie, it was so sleekly made that, like one of those Olympic divers with perfect form, it slipped into theaters without making any splash at all.
Miller’s new film, Personal Velocity, adapted from her own 2001 collection of short stories, is a different animal altogether: It does everything it can to avoid being overlooked. It’s messier, first of all, than Angela was; at some points it seems to thrash across the screen. Whereas Angela featured a no-name cast, this one has Parker Posey, Kyra Sedgwick, and Fairuza Balk—maybe not the Hollywood A list, but still destined to draw better among the target demographic than Angela’s roster of Miranda Stuart Rhyne, Charlotte Eve Blythe, and Anna Levine. And whereas the earlier film had a strong but unobtrusive sort of beauty, this one is relentlessly and sometimes annoyingly experimental.
Indeed, for about the first 30 minutes, it looks as though Personal Velocity won’t have much going for it beyond visual and formal novelty. A triptych of stories about women fleeing men—breathtakingly but sometimes self-indulgently shot on digital video by cinematographer Ellen Kuras—the movie opens with its flattest and weakest section. A middle-aged beauty named Delia (Sedgwick) escapes an abusive marriage and heads back in the direction of her Catskill, N.Y., hometown with her kids in tow. She cold-calls an old high-school acquaintance (Mara Hobel) and takes a room above the woman’s garage. She then finds work as a waitress and attracts the slobbering attention of the men in town, which leads to—what else?—her giving the leering son of the restaurant’s owner a handjob in his pickup truck as the sun goes down.
There’s a lot to explore in Delia, a woman who has always relied on her attractiveness to men (there’s lots of talk about her “glorious ass”) and suddenly finds herself not only losing her looks but also forced to rely on herself and the kindness of other females. But Miller never finds a clear way to tell that story. Instead, we get a series of flashbacks of Delia as the slutty teenage daughter of a goat-raising hippie, visuals—including a series of stop-action shots that look like Polaroids—that are striking but seem extraneous to the story line, and deadpan narration (by John Ventimiglia) that layers thick selections of simile-laden, straight-from-the-book prose over the action.
But then a surprising thing happens: The film begins to get along with itself, finding story lines to match its hip and restless visual style. The about-face that transforms Personal Velocity quickly from one of the more disappointing films of the year to one of the most thrilling begins with the second story, in which Posey plays ambitious but emotionally wracked Manhattanite Greta. She edits cookbooks and shares her apartment with her kind, bland husband, Lee (Tim Guinee), who works as a fact-checker at the New Yorker while writing his dissertation at the rate of about half a chapter per year.
Lee isn’t exactly a slacker—we see him on the phone one morning before 6, checking facts about baits and lures for a story on fishing—but he doesn’t churn with the same existential unease that Greta does. And he has the effect, in that weird reversal that relationships can create, of making Greta feel about herself the way she thinks she feels about Lee: that here’s a person who isn’t going to make a mark on the world. Faced with a life growing ever more conventional, Greta, in the, uh, memorable words of the narrator, begins to feel “the ambition drain out of her like pus from a lanced boil.”
She winds up getting her wish for freedom, though it happens improbably. A hot novelist named Thavi Matola (Joel de la Fuente) requests her, out of the blue, as the editor of his new novel, Water. When the book is a hit, Greta is catapulted into a new job—and right out of her marriage with Lee. Posey makes her character a dashing loser: The expression on Greta’s face when she uses the professional turnaround as an excuse to buy a pair of Manolo Blahniks—a look that’s equally gleeful, nervous, and guilty—is worth the price of admission all by itself. It’s refreshing to see a female character fighting confusion as ambition pulls her away from the safety of old relationships; in nine out of 10 Hollywood products, that crisis is strictly male territory. And Posey seems to embody, perfectly, the movie’s desire to be stylish and open about its neuroses at the same time.
In the third section, young and newly pregnant Paula (Balk, looking tough in thick circles of eye shadow and a black-on-black wardrobe) narrowly misses being hit by a car on a New York sidewalk and spends the rest of the story darting around like a half-smashed moth. After she flees the city in her own car, she picks up a teenage hitchhiker and then tends to his mysterious wounds in a hotel room, all the while trying to deal with her problematic relationship with a guy back home and visit her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend. Shot mostly inside Paula’s car (with repeated side trips to Dunkin’ Donuts), this chapter is the most claustrophobic of the three—and with its evocation of awkward relationships between parents and their adult children the world over, also the most powerful.
It would be easy to say that the second and third parts of Personal Velocity work so well because both Miller and her actresses (especially Posey) know the world of Manhattan style, personal reinvention, and privilege so well, from the literary scene parodied in Greta’s story to the grimy allure of downtown street life symbolized in Paula’s. It would also be pretty accurate—which is surprising, because Angela was so effective in its otherworldliness, in its lack of reliance on any contemporary cultural touchstones. But as the Blahniks interlude demonstrates, Miller needs pop culture this time out. The second section, for example, has a snarky kind of energy that the opening one, which borders on the condescending in its treatment of abused women and of working-class life, lacks completely. And the fact that Greta has a famous father who casts an intimidating shadow can’t be overlooked, either. If Personal Velocity proves anything, it’s that sometimes it really is best to stay among your own people. CP