Storytelling often uses the past as a tool to imagine otherwise: to create other communities or futures. Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002) takes up this work, and does it beautifully, creating a triptych that focuses on three young women who are all at a turning point in their lives. Their stories are told in three distinct thirty-minute parts, but they do not intertwine. Miller shows us three women, specific in their struggles and in three unique worlds. Delia Shunt (Kyra Sedgwick) is a no-nonsense woman who got married at age 17. When her once passionate husband becomes abusive, she decides—after one particularly horrendous assault—to take her young children and herself to a women’s shelter. Greta Herskowitz (Parker Posey) is a 28-year-old cookbook editor at a New York publishing house, who married a man because she knew he would never leave her. She feels that her life has become stagnant, until a famous author, Thavi Matola (Joel de la Fuente), asks her to edit his new book. Paula (Fairuza Balk) has run away from home, and has been stuck in a loveless relationship with a man who, in her mind, plucked her out of homelessness. On her way back from a club one night, she witnesses a man being killed by a moving car.
Miller expertly takes the viewer into the middle of these women’s lives, as they each undergo an epiphanic moment. The viewer exits each portrait—and they are indeed portraits, as we only ever get a glimpse into the characters’ worlds, but these glimpses feel intimate and affecting—without knowing what the characters will do once we stop watching. But that is what makes Miller’s work so remarkable. We leave them as potentialities. The women have found a way to craft out a future for themselves. That is the gift that the film gives them. The unnamed male narrator (John Ventimiglia) gives the viewer a clue into their past, but he cannot narrate their future. And this is fitting for a film about women who once framed their lives around men they once thought could “save” them. Personal Velocity: Three Portraits is about women who realize they do not need saving.