SXSW 2011 Review: SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS

by: Kate Erbland
March 15th, 2011

Rating: 3/5

Writers: Annie Howell, Lisa Robinson
Directors: Annie Howell, Lisa Robinson
Cast: Anna Margaret Hollyman, Andre Holland, Sarah Rafferty, Susan Kelechi Watson, Mary Beth Peil

Sarah Sparks is a geek girl with “a soft spot for machinery.” She loves anything with cords, screens, keys, Wi-Fi capability, Internet connectivity, if you can plug it in, Sarah (Anna Margaret Hollyman) probably owns it, or wants to own it, or wants to talk about it. But when Sarah ends up pregnant by her charming boyfriend, Leon (Andre Holland), her attention is forced to refocus itself on the one item that doesn’t come with instructions. The problem is, Sarah isn’t just a technogeek – as connected as she is to electronics, she’s equally as out of touch with human emotions and behaviors including, she fears, how to be a mother. A pregnant Sarah embarks on a trip west to hang out with her wacky older sister and to possibly see her Zenned-out mom in an attempt to harness some seemingly crucial feminine energy.

Even in the face of the imminent arrival of new life, Sarah is most interested in her pregnancy on a technical level – the actual way the pregnancy test determines its results, the way the ultrasound renders her baby. Sarah is without sentiment, but she is not without sympathy. Anna Margaret Hollyman is an engaging lead, a less quirky-sweet Greta Gerwig. She makes both Sarah’s uncertainties and interests feel real and believable. A less likable actress could have made Sarah miserable and hard to connect with, an anti-girl, but Sarah is nothing short than wholly lovable.

Upon landing in California, Sarah is subjected to a boozy baby shower populated almost exclusively by her crazy sister’s friends. It’s already a nightmare, and that’s before the various ladies launch into their own child-rearing horror stories, leaving Sarah more terrified than ever. Sarah’s sister, Emily (Sarah Rafferty) traumatizes her still more, by declaring it “the most important party of Sarah’s life.” Wide-eyed and mortified, Sarah can only gaspingly ask, “it is?!” Cue the drunk strangers and hideously behaved children, and it’s only understandable that Sarah’s on the verge of a real breakdown. Then one of those inebriated guests gives Sarah a keepsake book – a scrapbook for her to put together for her unborn child, including a section on Sarah’s own mother. Realizing that a years-long rift with her mom isn’t going to aid her in being a proper mother, she hits the road to find her mom, who’s now living fully “off the grid.”

Finding Sarah’s mom is a whole new ball of wax. Sarah has to deal with her own techno-obsessed dad (long separated from his mother), Leon’s massage therapist little sister (as obsessed with human touch as Sarah is with smooth electronic surfaces), and her own precious technology turning against her. Her navigation system leads her astray, her phone dies, the batteries fail on her toothbrush, the radio can’t receive a signal. She’s stuck with payphones and actual maps, throwbacks, artifacts she doesn’t quite remember how to use. Writers and directors Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson find clever and cute uses of technology to highlight Sarah’s dependence on them (she talks to her Tom-Tom as if it’s a person, she imagines Skyping with her baby in utero), so when they suddenly conk out on her, it has the same weight as a human being letting her down.

But when Sarah finds the one human being who really has let her down the most, it’s uncertain whether or not her mother will provide the answers she so desperately needs. Just how much illumination can we really get from outside ourselves? Does Sarah really need other people and other gadgets to tell her how to mother, why to mother, and if she can even mother? SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS begs those questions (and a few more) in a charming package. The film is a plucky little indie with real heart that often (but not always) connects with its tech-savvy audience enough to invest them in the actual lives of people.

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