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'Personal Velocity'

'Personal Velocity' is up to speed

Friday, February 14, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

Checked the personals lately? Jean Harlow was the "Personal Property" of Robert Taylor back in 1937. Gene Tierney had a "Personal Affair" with a murderer in '54. Mariel Hemingway did her "Personal Best" at the Olympics in '82.


RATING: R for strong language and serious adult sexual themes

STARRING: Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk

DIRECTOR: Rebecca Miller


Why are women so much more personally intriguing than men? I have my suspicions, you have yours, and writer-director Rebecca Miller has hers in a lovely film called "Personal Velocity," the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize-winner of 2002.

It's a cinematic triptych. A narrator crisply introduces three heroines, whose successive half-hour tales derive from a short-story collection by Miller -- daughter of playwright Arthur. They are caught (and we'll be catching them) at critical junctions when their lives are on the brink of a major change:

1) Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) "could stop traffic with that [behind]," we are told (and can see for ourselves), but she can't stop an abusive husband. His mindless brutality one night at dinner -- an amazingly brief, potent scene -- is her final impetus for grabbing the kids and leaving. "Ever been in love with a man who hates you?" she asks bitterly at a women's shelter, before moving on to a friend's hilariously perfect home upstate in her search for the sexual power she lost to the power of violence.

2) Greta (Parker Posey) is a cookbook editor ("365 Ways to Fix Rice"), married to a "New Yorker" fact-checker who's the sweetest, cutest guy in the world (Tim Guinee). Truly sweet and cute -- to rival Barbie's Ken. Assigned to edit a hot new novelist, she's smitten with "a toxic blend of elation and anxiety": Greta has a fidelity problem. It began with a rabbinical student while she was still planning her wedding to the fact-checker, whose doctoral dissertation, "swollen to bursting with redundancies," now fuels her desire to dump him like a superfluous sentence.

3) Paula (Fairuza Balk) is pregnant, on the lam from her boyfriend, and experiencing post-traumatic stress when she picks up a hitchhiker (Lou Taylor Pucci) in the rain. He is a mysteriously beautiful -- and badly beaten -- runaway adolescent, who sucks his thumb in his sleep. She is a pierced-Pieta madonna, dressing his and her own wounds in a dreary Dunkin Donuts world. It's a noir, Antonioni-type finale, with the one thread that connects all three stories.

Miller employs relatively little dialogue, letting silence and imagery replace words as much as possible in the story-telling. The pithy narration device is used sparingly, to convey character information rather than fine turns of phrase. On Delia as waitress, for example: "Anyone who was rude to her, she spat in their food -- but never when she had a cold."

Sedgwick is terrific in that role, as is her C&W theme song, "Lord-a-Mercy, Baby's Got Her Bluejeans On!" Posey is perfection -- ab-fab funny as just a grammar girl who can't say no. She deserves her "Queen of the Indies" moniker for this and 30 other independent films in recent years, including such fine ones as "Waiting for Guffman," "Dazed and Confused" and my personal favorite, "Anniversary Party."

But the actresses could not have been so successful without such a splendid script. Rebecca Miller, clearly blessed with her father's dramatic genes, makes a successful effort to prevent it from sounding theatrical or literary. Visually, the film's Digital Video photography enhances its quasi-documentary feel, with excellent use of grainy, stop-action stills for emphasis.

At exactly 85 minutes, this "Personal Velocity" is a brisk, bright, brainy breath of fresh air.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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