Little Accidents (**)
Running Time: 105 min
Director: Sara Colangelo
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Jacob Lofland and Josh Lucas
BLUE collar ennui hangs in the air like fine coal dust in Little Accidents, writer-director Sara Colangelo’s debut feature. Expanding on her 2010 short of the same name with Sundance’s in-house development labs, and shot in West Virginia, the film is set in a run-of-the-mill mining town somewhere on American’s margins, and quickly establishes a firm sense of place.
This is a land of tough but economically fragile men, soot coated work boots, bored boys passing around whiskey to kill time, and mothers just about making it work. The community is living at the fag-end of things, grieving for ten miners lost in a recent work accident, another acknowledgement of their vulnerability and lack of options.
The handheld shooting style, sharp depth of field and mournful Celtic soundtrack call to mind the small-town naturalism of something like TV’s Friday Night Lights, but Little Accidents doesn’t have nearly the same lightness of touch when it comes to making fishbowl anxieties work through believable characters. In terms of the small screen, its use of familiar melodrama often comes closer to TV movie territory.
The only survivor of the accident, one in which management may or may not be culpable, is Amos Jenkins, played by Boyd Holbrook (previously Ed Harris’ asshole yuppie son in Run All Night, currently in Netflix’s Narcos). Distracted and dazed with a limp right side, the half-recovered Amos is the only living witness to what happened in the mine, and finds himself caught between competing interests. The families of his deceased co-workers pressure him to join their class action suit against the company, and provide the evidence of negligence that would hold the bosses accountable and guarantee some form of redress.
But the rest of the workforce, fearful of damage to the company and disruption to the town’s only source of income, encourage him to not kick up a fuss with friendly reminders to ‘do right by them’. Their manager, Bill Doyle, and his upper middle class family, become a target of local class resentment.
One of families left sans patriarch is the Briggs’: Chloë Sevigny as a harried mother with two sons, one with Down’s syndrome and the other, Owen (Jacob Lofland, The Maze Runner), about to enter high school and desperate to belong. Out in the woods one day, a socially bruised Owen has an argument with the brash Doyle son over sins of the father and accidentally knocks him out dead, hiding his body out of sight.
With the ensuring manhunt for the missing boy turning up bunk, and the father under threat of criminal investigation, the anxious mother Diane (Elizabeth Banks, adding a touch of glamour) seeks comfort in new places. She strikes up a friendship and eventual romantic intimacy with Amos, and both of them drift into the orbit of a guilt-ridden Owen.
Theoretically, the action in Little Accidents comes from this web of connections between the central personalities, and their shifting positions of guilt towards each other. But issues of culpability, grief and class are signposted only in broad strokes by the screenplay, which doesn’t do enough to make clear the different motivations at play and express their difficulties in ways which are interesting or new (we know Diane is distressed because she takes pills and booze, and lies about messily on the sofa, having cookie cutter arguments with her husband). Diane and Amos have an affair because basically they’re both kind of sad, and subtextual possibilities about co-dependence in the face of tragedy are left unaddressed.
Like many early film-makers, Colangelo tends to luxuriate in a perspective that mistakes moody detachment for emotional realness: as a result, the film never really gets going, all the grimness coming off as unnecessarily miserablist. The performances are good across the board, especially Banks, helping to lift the nuance and give Owen and Amos’ struggles over their secrets some feeling, but the passivity eventually tries your patience. There’s little drama in Little Accidents.