Although I think we'd all prefer to see films without cliché and convention, I'm willing to forgive a little reliance on familiar scenes if the film has charm. Small Beautifully Moving Parts contains a scene where its lead character, in the middle of a soul-searching road trip, lets out an existential scream of frustration at a rest stop. It is about a woman who learns she's pregnant, and becomes concerned that she relates more to her current life than the one she's about to give birth to, and about a child reconnecting with an estranged parent before having their own kid. Despite this adding up to a movie most viewers have already seen and will likely see again, it works, because director/writers Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson have a light touch and a remarkably winning lead actor.
The pregnant woman in question is Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman), who can hardly stop thinking about the chip inside her pregnancy test and its ability to display a certain font long enough to consider what it's trying to tell her. Sarah loves electronics, taking apart clocks and computers and marveling at every circuit and board that makes them run, but she isn't half as excited for the baby as the father, Leon (Andre Holland). As her due date approaches, she visits her sister Emily (Sarah Rafferty) for a baby shower, and begins thinking about her mother, who makes infrequent phone calls to Emily and their father, Henry (Richard Hoag), but never contacts Sarah. Against everyone's advice, Sarah decides she needs to know more about her mother in order to avoid making the same mistakes with her child, so she goes on an impromptu road trip out into the middle of the Nevada desert to track her down.
At 73 minutes, this is a small movie, and it certainly moves beautifully (sorry). Howell and Robinson waste little time with exposition, diving right into the pregnancy, Sarah's trip to visit Emily and their father, and the decision to go further. Having seen so many movies recently that take forever just to get to what seems to be the set up, it's a relief to watch a movie that builds its characters and moves the story along at the same time. Some of this speedy delivery probably stems from the fact that Howell and Robinson made a whole webseries about the character prior to the movie (mentioned only in the DVD liner notes), but in any case, it's greatly appreciated.
Hollyman, who looks and acts like a cross between Isla Fisher and Melanie Lynskey, is a remarkably endearing screen presence, lifting the movie up out of any story doldrums simply by exuding personality and charm. Some of the other actors in the picture (like Susan Kelechi Watson as Andre's sister Towie) give fairly broad comedic performances, but Hollyman is laid-back, casual, natural. In an interesting and unusual quirk, Howell and Robinson have Hollyman, in character as Sarah, interview what appear to be genuine, random passerby on subjects relating to the film, like parenting advice and the nature of family photos. I'm not sure it's artistically cohesive, but it's an interesting and surprising little left turn that helps make the movie feel unique and personal.
Story-wise, Sarah's journey is a bit thin. As she gets closer and closer to her mother, the technology she loves so much begins to fail her. Ultimately, the things that Sarah discovers are not necessarily universal epiphanies, or even particularly meaningful or insightful, but I was relieved, at least, that they were not simplistic, cheesy reassurances. Small Beautifully Moving Parts doesn't blaze a new path through its story points, but I'm okay with two filmmakers (and a very engaging tour guide) taking the familiar route in order to work out and experiment with their creative voice.
Parts follows the usual Film Movement template: a border, key art with some critical quotes, and a back cover that gives equal space to the feature and the short films they've included as bonus features. The disc comes in a transparent Amaray case, so that one can read the liner notes printed on the inside rear cover.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, this is a surprisingly solid A/V presentation. Colors are bright and vivid, contrast is nicely balanced, black levels are inky, and I did not notice any artifacting or other issues that I expected to find lurking around the corners of the frame. The only issue with the image is a touch of softness. Audio-wise, Small Beautifully Moving Parts has pretty simple needs, and the track delivers on those needs with a crisp track that spreads the poppy music and atmosphere around the viewer nicely. The one ding (as usual) is that no subtitles or captions have been provided.
Two short films are included. "Head Stand" (9 minutes) is a black-and-white student film by Robinson that details the almost existential need of a young woman to master the head-stand technique being taught in her yoga class, and "The Failure of Pamela Salt" (23 minutes), by Howell, is the low-key story of a woman whose frustration over her lack of employment is only furthered by the child prodigy living next door. Both films were fine, with some amusing moments, but neither grabbed me as much as the feature film. It also seems like there's a missed opportunity here to include an episode of the show "Sparks," where the Sarah Sparks character was introduced.
Small Beautifully Moving Parts bears some directorial growing pains, but some of the flair grabbed my attention, as did Hollyman's lead performance. Recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.