Small really is beautiful in this slyly funny, deadpan earnest indie, written and produced by a pair of women, Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson, that revolves around the self-doubt of a pregnant Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman). As her last name hints, Sarah is comfortable with electricity–in fact, she’s a one-woman Nerd Team. If only babies came with CPUs and circuit boards, she’d be rocking this thing.
But Sarah’s mother abandoned the family when she was a baby herself, and has avoided all contact for the past few years. Despite the oh-so-chill support of her hipster partner/husband Leon (Andre Holland), she packs her roller suitcase and heads first to her sister’s, then to her father’s, and finally, inevitably, into the Arizona desert in search of Mom.
A pregnant woman driving alone in the desert, with detours to Las Vegas? We know where Tarantino would take this baby buggy. But here the sure eye and quiet confidence of the writer/directors resist all cheap temptations, and motels. Yes, we do grit our teeth every time Sarah pulls into a rest area, but that Other Movie never surfaces. The restraint is a fine balancing act and works both ways–as a means of keeping us in suspense over a rather routine jaunt, and as a way of centering the story on the smallest and most beautiful of moving parts.
To compensate, Hollyman’s Sarah is a small-scale triumph. Her beatific smile always surprises, and reminded me of Jenna Fischer in The Office–she has the sort of face you just want to watch register small (there’s that word again) human emotions.
Still, you may be asking, if there aren’t any psycho truckers haunting the highways and Sarah doesn’t fall for a male dancer when her GPS accidentally diverts her to Las Vegas, what keeps us from nodding off like a milk-fed toddler? It’s a fair question, as the fine line in indie films is often fudged by the notion that showing the truth means embodying it. (As in, if a movie seems boring that’s because it’s about boring people, so it’s really, you know, profound.)
Instead of relying on our indulgence, Small, Beautifully Moving Parts works like a finely meshed machine. Its grace is founded on the observation of details–human as well as technological. When Sarah’s sister Emily insists on holding a baby shower with Emily’s mommy friends, we watch them knock back Bloody Marys and ignore the pregnant stranger in their midst. The quietly horrifying vision of modern motherhood only increases Sarah’s need to know more about her own mother. Fleeing sis for Dad, she finds him emotionally unavailable, but locked into a Skype relationship with a Brazilian woman, who thinks of him as Hunky Henrique. (Of course Sarah has to fix his Skype connection.) The stuff of broad comedy in Ben Stiller’s quite funny Flirting with Disaster (1996), here is deftly poignant.
Another example of small pleasures is the post-racial casting. Blonde Sarah’s man is black and his sister plays a sweet role as a massage therapist who discovers Sarah’s “animal counterpart.” As Sarah’s mother is gradually revealed to be a kind of hapless New Age quester, we find ourselves noticing the other technology out there, the one having to do with the spirit, instead of the usual skin color issues. It’s refreshing.
Ultimately the film is another of those great American road trips, and here it does suffer from all the competition out there. The directors try to side-step comparisons with our national genre, ducking Lost in America, Harry and Tonto, Two-Lane Blacktop and Easy Rider, but a road trip without a stop in a diner? Points deducted.