Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity" sneaks up on you. The film and its title originate with a slim collection of stories Miller published last year that was politely received in reviews that often seemed to miss the point. On the face of it, the book and the feature Miller has made out of three of its stories involve women who, for various good reasons, are running from the men in their lives. That's common enough, even at the movies where interesting female characters are as rare as albino tigers, but what gives Miller's characters a jolt of truth is that they're also running from the women they have become.
The film's heart is its second story, in which Parker Posey plays not-nice as her director takes no prisoners. Adrift in her early 30s, daughter of a great man (Ron Leibman) and wife to a perfectly nice guy (Tim Guinee), Greta works as a cookbook editor at a sleepy New York publishing house where she spends her days wading through recipes and nervously tugging at her too-short skirts. When literary hotshot Thavi Matola (Joel de la Fuente) decides that Greta, formerly a fearsome editor at the Harvard Advocate, can shave the fat from his epic-in-progress, she sharpens her pencil, then buys a pair of alligator heels. As she cuts the dross out of Matola's novel, she again becomes the ambitious young woman she was, building a sleek new image from the writer's forfeited words.
Miller is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, and it's likely that she knows something about being brought up in privilege and the need to escape from under a shadow. In the voice-over narration that weaves through the film, an unidentified male voice (John Ventimiglia) explains that Greta's father, Avram, is an influential lawyer who often appears on television standing on courtroom steps while declaring that "this decision is a victory for justice in this country." It's a gently mocking characterization -- Daddy Dearest as the very personification of the law -- but it also gets at why for much of her early life Greta pulled toward her charismatic father and away from her mother, a Polish refugee born just days before the liberation of Auschwitz. However schematic, it is a setup that a lot of us know by heart.
Miller's other two stories have their share of truths, but without "Greta" or Posey's tautly wound performance to hold the center, "Personal Velocity" would not have as strong a claim on authenticity. Some of what makes Greta's story feel truer, fair or not, comes from what we know about the author's own life (the paternity and the privilege), but mostly it's that the women in the other stories are not as finely tuned. Although the first ("Delia") is more developed as a narrative than the sketchy third ("Paula"), the women at their center feel too blurry, more like types pulled from case studies. In contrast, you could cut your hand on Greta's newly sharpened edges, which bring to mind what Saul Bellow's Herzog, with no small alarm, said of women -- that they "eat green salad and drink human blood."
Although nothing in Miller's film matches Bellow's sublime malice, what distinguishes it from most American movies about women is that it's similarly impolite. In the first story, Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) packs up her children and leaves the husband who's been slapping her around. One of those women whose cloistered marriage has left her without friends, Delia escapes under the cover of night, eventually moving into the garage of a woman, Fay (Mara Hobel), for whom she had once done a small kindness. One day in high school, Delia had beaten off some boys who had pulled down Fay's pants, exposing her overstuffed flesh to ridicule. Delia had been the school's nymphet and Fay its sacrificial lamb, and some 20 years later all that binds them is their respective shame, which floats between them like an accusation.
The envy and old resentments that waft around these two are only part of a larger story about a woman whose identity is bound up with her sexual attractiveness to men and only part of a larger story about women who, having learned to live with men -- fathers and husband alike -- sometimes need to live apart from them. One of the gutsiest images I've seen in a movie this year is the sight of Delia sobbing alone in the middle of the night, away from her sleeping children and missing the man who had once bloodied her face. That isn't what women are supposed to do when they leave, either through the front door or out the back. Miller's strength in her stories and in the film is in her ability to push past ideology and get right down to the nitty-gritty of desire.
Not everything works. Sedgwick pumps a lusty swagger into Delia's hips but the actress is miscast, having neither the haunted look that comes with a life filled with abuse nor the character's vaunted physicality. (Only in Beverly Hills could that tush be called "heavy.") The film's third, most gossamer story, "Paula," featuring Fairuza Balk as a bohemian fugitive in meltdown, barely gets going before it ends. Still, these are quibbles for a movie that at its best doesn't just make the most out of its characters' flaws but insists on the virtue of imperfection -- how different from the vacuumed ideal that fills most of our screens! You may not see Miller's women when you look in the mirror but at least here you recognize the likeness.
MPAA rating: R, for brief violence, some strong sexuality and language.
Times guidelines: Some intense scenes of domestic abuse, along with some adult language, sexuality and female nudity.
Kyra Sedgwick ... Delia
Parker Posey ... Greta
Fairuza Balk ... Paula
John Ventimiglia ... Narrator
Ron Leibman ... Avram
Independent Film Channel Productions presents an InDigEnt Production in association with Goldheart/Blue Magic Pictures, released by United Artists. Director Rebecca Miller. Writer Rebecca Miller, based on her book "Personal Velocity." Producer Lemore Syvan. Composer Michael Rohatyn. Costume designer Marie Abma. Production designer Judy Becker. Editor Sabine Hoffmann. Director of photography Ellen Kuras. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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