Little Accidents (2014)

23 May


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sara Corlangelo’s “Little Accidents” is an ensemble drama that tries to intersect many character stories around not just one tragedy but two at least. As the title suggests, these tragic events are caused by little accidents. While some individual traits work well on their own, and it’s well-acted and suitably atmospheric, the film as a whole lacks focus. There are three particular characters that are given the most attention, but there are also side characters that apparently have much more purpose than is being shown so that when something important is said to them or when something tragic happens to one of them, it’s hard to feel for or even understand them when you hardly got a chance to know them. This is a problem I notice in most ensemble films that try to connect a few character stories into one film: it leaves little room for development on certain aspects.

One of the central tragedies in the film is a fatal mining accident in the small coal town of Beckley, West Virginia. Possibly due to managerial negligence, 10 miners lost their lives, and a lot of Beckley locals are wondering who’s to blame for it. Reserved, quiet Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) is the lone survivor, which means he’s the perfect subject for interrogation in the investigation. And he also gets unwanted attention from everyone in town, not just because he’s the lone survivor of this incident but also because half of them are afraid he’ll say something against the mine which will cause it to shut down. What he knows could ruin the livelihoods of everyone who works there.

Meanwhile, another tragedy occurs as teenage Owen (Jacob Lofland), whose father died in the mine accident, in involved in the accidental death of one of his schoolmates, J.T. (Travis Tope). Feeling responsible, he hides the body and doesn’t tell anyone about what happened. The only witness was his Down-syndrome-afflicted little brother (Beau Wright), whom he makes promise not to tell anyone, even their mother (Chloe Sevigny).

J.T.’s father, Bill Doyle (Josh Lucas), is one of the corporate executives for the mine and is also under investigation for the mine accident. When J.T. disappears, he and his wife, Diana (Elizabeth Banks), start a public search for him. As time goes on, they come to expect the worst, as they grieve their son’s loss. At the same time, Owen tries to carry on with his life with his silent guilt. Feeling sorry, he gets himself a job doing yard work for Diana and Bill. But when they befriend each other, Owen is even more unsure about whether or not he should tell them what happened to J.T.

Somewhere in all this, Amos gets back into the picture, as Diana, who isn’t very close with Bill anymore and seeks comfort elsewhere, meets Amos at a Bible study and begins an affair with him. But something I have to wonder is what was the clear motivation for Diana in this affair. I mean, I know she’s grief-stricken over the loss of her son and needs someone to be with when Bill isn’t always there for her when he has the investigation to deal with; but is it possible that she’s just cozying up to Amos to keep him from testifying against the mine and its executives, including Bill? I recently asked a friend who saw this with me what he made of this relationship; a possible conclusion is that maybe she started out genuinely liking him and feeling comfortable around him in this distressing situation but then she realized that she does indeed care for her husband when it’s possible that Amos may actually testify against him. Either way you look at it, it still gets Amos to realize what he has to do.

Not that it’s at all implausible, but it’s always interesting in films such as this how people from different classes in a small town are brought together and able to talk to each other like this. I think the most touching friendship is the one that develops between Owen and Diana; the best scene in the film is one in which Diana helps Owen with yard work and they talk about J.T., and Owen tells her what J.T. was like the last time he saw him (because she knows he was there around the time he disappeared). The dialogue and acting in this scene is just perfect and captures the pain and guilt that both of them are going through with one not realizing the full truth about the other.

The film contains a lot of atmosphere as it presents this town and picks just the right locations to show us. The film’s director of photography, Rachel Morrison, captures the setting really well with the aid of natural-light 35mm photography. The actors are solid too—this is some of Elizabeth Banks’ best work as a distraught woman dealing with loss and also feeling guilty about benefit; Boyd Holbrook is suitably subdued as soft-spoken Amos who eventually must face corruption; and Jacob Lofland (in his first film since “Mud”), as a guilt-ridden kid who tries to consider the penalties of his actions, is emerging as a most promising young actor with great range.

But unfortunately, other good actors are left with unwritten, underdeveloped roles that they try to pull off. I guess Josh Lucas gets a fair amount of screen time, but Chloe Sevigny is wasted as Owen’s mother; we know nothing about her except she lost her husband in the accident and she’s able to buy her sons the latest technologies with settlement cash. That’s about it—there’s no character here. I can say the same about Amos’ father whom Amos lives with after recovery. They get only two brief scenes together before something inevitable (at least, if you’ve seen enough movies) happens, and by that time, when you should feel bad for him and for Amos, I feel like I didn’t know a damn thing about him.

By the main aspects of “Little Accidents,” I should like this film. And I do, at least a little. At the end of the film, when characters must reveal their hidden truths, it does have a certain emotional power to it. I think what bothers me about it is that while it spends time with emotional connections with these characters from different classes, there are hardly any room for connections in their own. Because of that, in my opinion, it doesn’t make the new relationships seem entirely special or noteworthy.

Maybe I’m focusing too much on the little things in this film and a second viewing might change that. As I’m writing this review, I come to think that maybe I should give “Little Accidents” a pass, since I think its main intention was to show how people are brought together during tragedy. In that respect, it does work well. I don’t know; if I see the film again and it changes the way I look at it, I’ll revise the review. For now, I give it a mixed review.

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