'Little Accidents' mines small-town tragedy with Gothic grit

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
'Little Accidents,' set in mining explosion's aftermath, a compelling debut for writer-director Sara Colangelo

In "Little Accidents," a drama set in a West Virginia coal-mining town, a boy, a woman and a man become inextricably and painfully linked in the aftermath of a mine explosion that left nine men dead.

Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook and Jacob Lofland star as the three broken people whom writer-director Sara Colangelo uses to explore small-town life in a factory town where the economic divide can be felt in every interaction.

Diane Doyle (Banks) is the wife of the executive (Josh Lucas) who is now the focus of an investigation into the mine incident. Amos (Holbrook) is the sole miner who survived, marked by the emotional and physical damage it wrought.

The pivotal player in yet another tragedy that is about to unfold is Owen (Lofland), a high school freshman and an outsider, who longs to be one of the guys. His father was one of the miners who died. His mother Kendra (Chloe Sevigny) is barely holding things together, leaving Owen in charge of his younger brother James (Beau Wright) who has Down syndrome.

The real accident on which the action turns lies in Owen's terrible secret. Diane's son, JT (Travis Tope), the high school football star, goes missing. He's a local hotshot, a leader in the cool-guy crowd that spends their afternoons hanging out smoking, drinking and bullying Owen when he comes around.

Though Owen knows what happened to JT, he's afraid to say. The weight of that knowledge and the guilt from his role in JT's disappearance propel the characters, shape the story. His final decision on whether to tell provides the movie's climax.

It's a lot of angst to pile onto a plate, and Colangelo doesn't always know what to do with it.

Layered on top of everything else is Diane's desperation over her missing son and her growing fear about her husband's role in the mine accident, which draws her into Amos' empathetic embrace. He has his own issues. The medical ones are most visible, but there is fear about testifying against the mine — its fate determines the fate of the town.

Shot on location in real West Virginia coal-mining towns, the film does carry the American Gothic grit you expect to see in such places. Among the machinery of mining, the dense forest setting and the broken-down houses, the portrait of a languishing way of life emerges. Director of photography Rachel Morrison and the rest of the production crew, including production designer Chris Trujillo and costume designer Meghan Kasperlik, capture that sense of resignation and weariness.

The look helps provide a little subtext, but not enough. For such an emotional piece, the dialogue stays too close to the surface. More problematic, the trio's encounters feel contrived; you can see the filmmaker's hand staging each one.

Banks and particularly Holbrook have some nice moments as their characters try to salve wounds in a by-the-hour motel bed. Holbrook, one of the stars in the coming Netflix drama series "Narcos," brings a haunted and deeply bruised quality to his miner, making Amos' struggle — to walk, to talk, to forgive, to love — come alive on screen. Another surprise is young Lofland. So charming as one of the towheaded saviors of Matthew McConaughey's "Mud," Lofland wears roiling teenage emotions effortlessly.

The film represents an interesting start for Colangelo, who is making her feature debut. To her credit, the writer-director tries for complexity. Now if she can just get the storytelling to match the quality of the filmmaking, I suspect there will be fewer little accidents.

Twitter: @betsysharkey


'Little Accidents'

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood

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