Sundance 2014 Review: Small Town Drama ‘Little Accidents’ Leaves Little Impact

By  · Published on January 24th, 2014

Small town life and big tragedy take to the big screen in filmmaker Sarah Colangelo’s feature film debut, Little Accidents, a slice of life drama about what happens when a town is hit by a pair of twin tragedies that may or may not be related to each other. Centered on three connected storylines that frequently bump up against each other before finally blending into one full-scale disaster, the film attempts to tackle big questions about grief and blame and responsibility through interpersonal examples. But despite strong acting (including a tear-stained performance by Elizabeth Banks, usually flexing her acting muscles in comedic situations), Little Accidents doesn’t pack much of an emotional punch, weighed down by predictable plotting and an uncomfortable sense that it’s primarily interested in piling on bad situation under bad situation, until everyone involved (characters and audience) simply crumbles under the weight of more cliché.

The film opens months after a mining accident has rocked a small town that’s seemingly wholly dependent on its local coal operations. The sole survivor of a mine cave-in, young Amos (Boyd Holbrook) is clearly uncomfortable with the attention his designation has begun affording him, from people declaring that his survival was a miracle to the local union who is putting pressure on him to speak out against the mining company in order to punish them (read: give more money to all of the victims, including Amos). Both physically and emotionally damaged, Amos just wants his life back, and sets about returning to work and weekly Bible study, though he is acutely and painfully aware that everything is different now.

Elsewhere, young Owen (the extraordinary Jacob Lofland) and his family (including his adoring younger brother and his self-possessed mom, played by Chloe Sevigny, who is relegated to a minor part) are attempting to get their lives back together after losing their patriarch in the same accident that wounded Amos. Owen, however, will soon do something so horrible and so truly accidental that it threatens to overshadow the loss of his father. On the literal other side of town, Diana (Banks) and her well-off family are trying to weather the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – namely that husband Bill (Josh Lucas) is an executive in the mining company who has made buckets of money, while also just maybe sacrificing safety for his men (including Amos and Owen’s dad).

The film moves between three interlocking stories – Amos and the mining accident, Owen and his horrible secret, Diana and Bill and a strange intersection between the pain that drives Amos and Owen individually – before they all eventually meet up in the most predictable of ways. Colangelo does make a somewhat offbeat choice when it comes to dividing up her storytelling, however, and instead of sticking to giving each storyline equal time and equal attention spread out over equal sections, she goes with a much more natural pace. When important events are transpiring for Owen, Colangelo stays with him, and when Amos and Diana begin their healing process together, she doesn’t abandon them to check in on Owen.

Despite Colangelo’s compelling pacing, the film eventually becomes a slow-speed race of human tragedy, with the ill-fated “winner” the one who has suffered the very most pain for doing the very least bad. Little Accidents opens in a bad situation, one that gets exponentially and unexpectedly worse extremely quickly, and the rest of the film simply hurdles towards the next inevitable great tragedy without pause. A predictable narrative robs the film of any sense of tension or great emotion, and Little Accidents falls flat as it tries to sensitively depict events that are indeed extremely large.

The Upside: Dramatically refined turns from Elizabeth Banks and Boyd Holbrook, another stellar performance from Jacob Lofland, and an-often sensitive portrayal of human grief.

The Downside: Deeply predictable, derives all forward momentum from the looming specter of still more tragedy, never feels fully rounded out or emotionally rich enough to support such wrenching drama.

On the Side: Colangelo’s 2010 short film, also known as Little Accidents, is loosely connected to her feature (a character like Amos and known as Amos appears in it), but the feature is not a true expansion of the story in the short.

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