Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002)


(director/writer: Rebecca Miller; screenwriter: based on Ms. Miller’s book “Personal Velocity”; cinematographer: Ellen Kuras; editor: Sabine Hoffman; music: Michael Rohatyn; cast: Kyra Sedgwick (Delia), Parker Posey (Greta), Fairuza Balk (Paula), John Ventimiglia (Narrator), Leo Fitzpatrick (Mylert), Ron Leibman (Avram, Greta’s Father), Joel de la Fuente (Thavi Matola), Shawn (Mr. Gelb), Tim Guinee (Lee, Greta’s Husband), Mara Hobel (Fay), Lou Taylor Pucci (Kevin, the Hitchhiker), Seth Gilliam (Vincent), Josh Phillip Weinstein (Oscar), Ben Shenkman (Max), Brian Tarantina (Pete Shunt, Delia’s Father), David Warshofsky (Kurt); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Gary Winick/ Alexis Alexanian/Lemore Syvan; UA; 2002)

“The acting is uniformly good by the three women stars, Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Personal Velocity marks the filmmaking debut for noted playwright Arthur Miller’s daughter Rebecca, whose small-budget indie film shot on digital video with grainy images is based on the short story collection she wrote. The very charms and at the same time faults with her film are in its sketchy real-life portraits and in how amateurishly genuine the filmmaking seems. Also, it seems more like a writing project for a grad school writing seminar than a sophisticated movie script. But it works on an emotional basis, as it connects with the viewer who should have no problem recognizing these situations and characters as everyday ones that regular folks experience.

Ms. Miller’s most irritating decision was the use of the unneeded voiceover narration of John Ventimiglia, his hushed voice throughout was used to explain what was going on in the character’s thought process instead of letting the viewer do some work. The three stories are each around a half-hour in length and are not interconnected but are related by their theme: of the depicted women all coming from dysfunctional families, all unhappy with what they have become, and all have problems dealing with the men in their lives. Also, all are faced in the climactic scene with making an urgent life-changing decision based on what weighs heavily on their mind from their childhood experiences.

The stories have an intelligence that relates well to the post-modern woman and the acting is uniformly good by the three women stars, Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk. Though for my money, Parker Posey steals the show as she takes the same sketchy material the others had to work with but somehow manages to give her character by a gesture here or there more breathe than the others. Ms. Miller’s film won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for the year 2002.

Warning: spoilers are throughout.

In the first story, Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) is a 34-year-old married women with three kids, a nice ass, dirty blonde hair and a hubby she has grown to love but who hates her. She grew up in a hippie household in the Catskills, and was a slut at an early age. She chose to live with her dad when her mom split for a more stable lifestyle and more material comforts. She married Kurt (Warshofsky) at a young age, as he was mad about her ass and couldn’t stand any one else having her. But the last straw she takes from him is a beating where he locks her in the cellar and she hears her kids crying for her and feels their pain when she can’t go to them and give them comfort as a mother, and she thereby makes a snap decision to take her kids upstate to live temporarily with a friend she never liked, Fay (Hobel). Delia gets a job as a waitress, gives a local yokel who is the nerdy son of the short-order cook (Fitzpatrick) a hand job, and seems trapped for life by her inability to get out of her lower-class slut mentality carried over from childhood.

Greta (Parker Posey) is a 28-year-old junior editor for a small publishing house, whose specialty is in editing cookbooks. Her father Avram (Leibman) is a well-known and highly successful lawyer with a reputation of high moral standards, getting his face frequently on TV and saying after a victory that “justice has prevailed,” taking on unpopular court cases and being more interested in winning them than seeking the truth while pretending otherwise. Greta grew up in an upper-class setting and attended elite private schools, and follows her father’s footsteps and attends Harvard Law School. But she drops out when dad disappoints her by having an affair and dumping her Polish refugee mom from the German concentration camp, who soon dies. Greta’s life ambitions are altered as she remains cool to her dad from here on, and she accepts marriage to a good man (Guinee) whom she doesn’t love with a passion but respects because he offers her stability. But things change when a famous hotshot author Thavi Matola (Fuente) requests her to edit his next book. Her old problem of sexual fidelity comes into play, as it’s shown in flashback that a short time before her marriage she got picked up by a rabbinical student (Shenkman) and had a torrid affair with him. Working closely with the author she has groping sessions with him which however leads no further, but she also meets a former boyfriend (Weinstein) at a party and kisses him. But this also doesn’t go any further. When the book is completed, her skill in reducing the author’s redundancies results in a highly successful novel and her reward is a job offer as a senior editor for a big-name publishing house. This gives her a chance to reunite with her father and his wealthy friends at a party they throw for her, and her ambitions return as she thinks of the possibility of getting dad’s friends to help her open up her own publishing house. She also decides to dump her writer hubby after looking at his dissertation on cannibals and finding too many redundancies.

The last story in the trilogy is about an upstate bohemian young woman named Paula (Fairuza Balk), who leaves home after her parents divorce and her mom takes a new lover whom she doesn’t care for. She moves to Brooklyn, gets picked up in the park by a black man from Haiti (Gilliam) and lives with him for about a year. She becomes pregnant and doesn’t want to confront him with this and is thinking about getting an abortion, and to chill out goes to a bar and meets a Norwegian man whom she feels comfortable telling him her unfulfilled ambitions to be a writer or an artist. While walking in the street, the Norwegian switches places with her because he says a gentleman should always be on the outside to protect a woman. By chance, at that point, an out-of-control car crashes into them killing him but only slightly wounding her. She feels guilty that he died instead of her, and not only runs away from the scene of the accident but from her boyfriend and most of all from herself. She picks up a young hitch-hiker (Pucci) because he looked cold and scared, as she visits her mom upstate after not seeing her for a few years. She takes pity on the boy because he was severely beaten and patches him up when he refuses to go to the hospital and report what happened. When she foolishly leaves the keys in her car to get donuts for the ride back home after telling him she is taking him back to live with her and her boyfriend, he steals the car. The lesson to be learned, I guess, is she never really connected or listened to the inarticulate lad, who when she told him her plan didn’t react positively. This was the weakest of the stories, as it was hard to feel that her kindness was really anything more than an act of stupidity (who in their right mind leaves their car keys with an unstable stranger while they shop!). The story also had an air of predictability and never seemed to generate much energy or give one something to think about other than she was kind-hearted and vulnerable, but also wasn’t very bright.


REVIEWED ON 12/26/2002 GRADE: B –