Power of one times three

Small moments add up in Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity

Personal Velocity has a piercing, raw truthfulness that is commonplace in the ambiguity-strewn world of short fiction but far rarer in film.

Drawn from director Rebecca Miller's own short story collection, the three tales in Personal Velocity tend to inspire a head full of questions and a nagging, painful empathy for its complex characters.

Personal Velocity makes some tentative movements to connect its troika of short narratives about three young women. Each of the women undergoes a kind of small epiphany or moment of self-recognition by the film's end; all three stories unfold at the same point in time; and all three vignettes deal with women grappling in an odd, challenging way with a kind of freshly discovered power that doesn't even look like power.

Kyra Sedgwick is astounding in the film's first tale of a school slut in a bleak upstate New York town who becomes a hard-edged mother with a passel of kids and a husband who likes to slap her around. When her husband gives her one too many broken noses, Delia (Sedgwick) flees with their three children, taking refuge in the home of the persecuted high school fat girl Fay (Mara Hobel), who she hasn't seen since they were kids.

Delia's story is laden with a kind of jagged truth about some people's sorry lot in life. And Delia is in many ways the sorriest. She has a boulder-sized chip on her shoulder about exposing herself to any more judgment or hurt — the kind of woman who keeps her traumas close to her chest and smothers her sobs for fear of traumatizing her already damaged children. Internal and fierce, on the outside Delia comes off as mean as broken glass.

But in the film's shocking denouement, a mix of vulnerability and triumph, power and passivity leads Delia to a sexual téte-a-téte with the creepiest guy in town. Like the other storylines in Personal Velocity, this bizarre conclusion to Delia's story looks a lot like real life — a muddle of complicated, unclear motives coming from an equally confounding woman.

It's tempting to see hints of writer/ director Rebecca Miller's own life in Personal Velocity. The daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, Rebecca trained as a painter/sculptor at Yale before moving into fiction writing. And Miller's own personal life — as part of Manhattan's elite, as a questing artist and as a daughter in the shadow of a respected father — seem fascinatingly intertwined in all three stories.

The most visible evidence of Miller's own privileged milieu surely comes in the film's middle story of a restless rich girl played by Parker Posey.

Posey makes a dramatic break from her usual nutcase roles to play the kind of character perfectly suited to the actress's whippet body, corkscrew turns of mind and pretty retro-Seventeen face. In this tale of preppie anomie in the Holden Caulfield tradition, Greta (Posey) has a wholesome blond husband and a complacent life as an underachieving publishing house editor with an Ivy League education and a troubled family history. Greta is jolted out of her lethargy when a hot young author chooses her to edit his forthcoming book. This chance at sudden, remarkable career advancement unleashes a slew of unresolved issues: infidelity, a demanding, judgmental lawyer father, a dead mother and a nagging sense of failure.

Like Delia, Greta is a character also founded on the bitter Darwinian logic of self-preservation meeting up with the loopy twists of human psychology. Greta can go from soft to cruel in a second, and Posey perfectly inhabits that collision of pretty girl fragility and me-first Ivy League shark.

Moving between worlds of privilege and working-class realism, Miller uses these varied settings and income brackets wisely, going beyond our expectations about how such characters should behave.

Such is the case with Paula (Fairuza Balk), a punk chick who has narrowly escaped death and has a harrowing encounter with a young hitchhiker. Purposeful and rat-like with her black-lined eyes and Ramones wardrobe, Paula is the least likely vehicle for a meditation on pregnancy and the rush of maternal protectiveness it spills onto the entire world.

Miller is not merely a writer translating her prose to visuals — she has a genuine flair for picking the right actress to embody these characters. And Miller's command of miniscule but shrewd details push the stories from New Yorker-style tasteful and middlebrow character studies into something a little more touching and human. The way Miller reveals the arrogance, intolerance for failure and romantic cruelty that lurks beneath the facade of Greta's father Avram (Ron Leibman) is masterful. In one brief scene of Avram walking down the courthouse steps as he ignores his colleagues and lashes into a pushcart lunch, Miller conveys the ferocity of this character and the birthright of status-lusting he has bequeathed to his daughter.

The uncannily on-target moments in Personal Velocity stack up — and before you know it, these screwed-up, intelligent, confused, delicate women have worked their way under your skin.