Those wondering if movies still have power to shock need only watch the first few minutes of Rebecca Miller's lovely, free-swinging film "Personal Velocity," when something happens to a character named Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) that jolts us out of our seats. The whole movie's like that, with unexpected twists and turns; there's a constant sense of movement, suggested in the title and underlined by fluid camera work and the kind of vivid, visual writing that bolts readers to the page — and audiences to the screen.
Miller adapted three of the seven short stories from her book "Personal Velocity" for this movie, all of which involve women in transition. Delia, a tough cookie all too aware of her own sexual power, leaves her hometown and husband behind, shepherding her children into a new life. Greta (Parker Posey), a meticulous Manhattan book editor, finds that success in her career goes hand-in-hand with trouble in her comfortable marriage. And young, pregnant Paula (Fairuza Balk), traumatized by an accident, finds comfort in taking care of a damaged boy.
There's a purity to the storytelling in "Personal Velocity" that's very appealing — the movie makes little effort to link the three narratives, but just presents the three women as they are. (They're not always likable, particularly Delia, but always seem like someone we know.) Miller uses still photography throughout the film to momentarily halt the action, giving us a literal snapshot of a woman pausing on the brink of change. Ellen Kuras' cinematography, shot on handheld digital video drenched in dusty, sunny light, gives the stories immediacy — they're like the artful home movies we'd make of our lives, if we knew how.
Although a voice-over fills in details about the characters (not always a successful technique, but here the writing's sufficiently irresistible), Miller's movie is made whole by the fine performances of its three stars. Sedgwick, whose strong, sharp features have always seemed at odds with her angelic halo of golden curls, resists the temptation to make Delia vulnerable or quavery; she's unbreakable and unruffled. Posey, looking preppy and polished, lets us see a giggly young woman both embarrassed and proud by sudden success. Greta's good at keeping narrative strands separate — both on the page, and in her life.
And the waiflike Balk, with smudgy eyes and a tiny rasp of a voice, brings a wounded sweetness to Paula. This character is perhaps the least fully developed on the page (although Paula does, tellingly, describe herself as "one of those people with a lot of potential who never really takes off), and her story is the briefest of the three, but the most haunting.
"Personal Velocity," at its heart, is about those moments that send our lives zooming in another direction. Like the little girls on swings in its charming prelude, it's a story of movement — of gliding back and forth, higher and higher, reaching for the sky.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.