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Women At The Speed of Life

Like father, like daughter. Arthur Miller's daughter Rebecca adapts and directs her own short stories with uniquely moving results.

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Within those first few minutes, something happens to a character named Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) that registers like the emotional equivalent of a heavyweight's one-two combination to a glass jaw. Wham! The effect is lightning quick, whiplashing us into the action.

Actually, the entire movie unfolds with that same unexpected shock of twists and turns. And first-time director Miller shows a knack at mixing a writer's ear for words and dialogue with a director's eye for stirring moving pictures. Even the camerawork suggests a sense of fluidity, of shifting priorities or changing emotions that underscore Miller's visually vivid writing making sure our attention remains riveted to the screen.

The trio of stories that make up the film's three acts are adapted from "Personal Velocity," a collection of seven short stories by Miller about women in transition. In the first, featuring the aforementioned tough-cookie Delia, we watch a woman who's all too aware of her own sexual power as she leaves hearth, home and hubby behind, wrangling her children with her into a new life. Then we meet Greta (Parker Posey), a lower-echelon Manhattan book editor who discovers that success in her field goes hand-in-hand with trouble in her comfortable marriage. Tying the triumvirate of female empowerment together — though not exactly handily — is young, pregnant Paula (Fairuza Balk). Traumatized by an accident, herself, Paula takes comfort in caring for a damaged boy.

The purity of Miller's storytelling — which loses nothing in its translation from printed page to the big screen — accounts for most of "Personal Velocity's" appeal. As mentioned, Miller isn't really concerned about linking the three narratives. Instead, she offers them to us without embellishment or politically correct niceness. As with Delia, that means these gals are not always likable. They are, however, authentic and imminently watchable.

To capture each woman at various points of personal crisis, Miller uses still photography as an emotional shorthand for the audience, bringing the action to a standstill so viewers can comprehend the gravity of the moment, offering us a literal snapshot of a woman caught on the very edge of change. Shot on hand-held digital video, Ellen Kuras' cinematography adds to Miller's desired effect, lending a sense of immediacy to each woman's story, as well as invoking the feel of a home movie.

Although I'm rarely a fan of voiceover narration, finding it more obtrusive than enlightening, Miller employs this conceit to minimal detriment here, thanks mostly to her irresistible writing. It's also Miller's incredible writing that provides each actress with an enviable character to make her own.

All three women craft authentic, memorable performances, but it's Sedgwick, whose sharp but petite features have often seemed at odds with her golden, halolike expanse of curls, who makes the most lasting impression. Resisting the temptation to make Delia vulnerable — and in the end, likable — Sedgwick remains steadfast in portraying her as unflappable, unbreakable and unapologetic.

Posey, looking sophisticated and polished, captures Greta's paradoxical nature effortlessly, showing us a giggly young woman who's both proud and embarrassed by the manner in which she achieved her sudden success. Often underestimated, the waiflike Balk, with her trademark smudgy bad-girl eyes and tiny scratch of a voice, brings a trampled sweetness to Paula. The least fully developed of Miller's three women, Paula even describes herself as "one of those people with a lot of potential who never really takes off."

And yet, for a lot of reasons that will remain unexplained here, Paula ends up rivaling Delia as the movie's most haunting woman.

At its emotional core, "Personal Velocity" is about those unplanned, inexplicable moments when a life goes careening off in another direction. Like the little girls swinging with unfettered delight in her charming prelude, Miller wants us hold on to her characters as they fly back and forth, pumping their legs to go ever higher, as they try to touch the sky. ***** S

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