It’s no surprise that “Little Accidents,” which played at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival tonight for press, was a Sundance premiere: as a directorial debut from a promising new U.S.-based director, with a roster of reliable indie actors plus the added gloss of the higher-profile Banks in the mix, set against the backdrop of a hardscrabble mining town, led by a child protagonist and promising a minutely observed morality play, it ticks a whole warehouse full of “Sundance movie” boxes. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but in the case of Sara Colangelo’s first film, it is certainly a very familiar one.
Well-intentioned, competently shot and put together, solidly acted, especially by tomorrow’s superstar Jacob Lofland (who we’d call a revelation if he hadn’t already impressed us so much as Neckbone in Jeff Nichols’ “Mud”), and unafraid to swim in the traditionally shark-infested thematic waters of the American class system, the film nonetheless can’t quite slip the “seen it before” noose. Coupled with a simplistic approach to its morality—secrets are bad, telling the truth is good, y’all—it’s the kind of heartfelt, solid indie that you almost feel bad for not being more moved by, but its beats are so predictable, and it ploughs such a well-worn groove, that nothing snags the attention or sparks it to a proper flame.
Tracking parallel and criss-crossing stories from either side of the tracks in a Rust Belt mining town, “Little Accidents” begins with a cave-in that kills ten local men, leaving only Amos (Boyd Holbrook, who does impressive work here too) alive to tell the tale (or not) to the investigation committee. Amos is batted between his desire to respect his dead friends by telling the truth, which is that the company, specifically in the person of mine manager Bill (Josh Lucas) was negligent and should be liable, and the townsfolk, including his also-injured ex-miner father, who want him to pipe down for fear the mine will close and they’ll be jobless. Meanwhile Bill is married to Diana (Banks) living in a big, luxurious house raising a rather spoiled 15-year-old in JT (Travis Tope). JT is in school with Owen (Lofland), the son of one of the dead men, who wants to belong to JT’s peer group, but when rejected lashes out, resulting in JT’s accidental death, witnessed only by Owen’s younger brother James, a sweet boy with Downs Syndrome for whom the pressure of keeping Owen’s secret manifests itself in crying bouts and bedwetting.
Summarized like that, the set-up does seem overstuffed, but Colangelo deserves credit for tamping down the potential for melodrama, getting restrained performances from her whole cast and largely keeping everything clear and fluid. Of course part of the reason she can do that is because everything is flowing in the same direction from this point onward: downhill. Tortured by guilt, Owen starts to help out around Diana’s house, cleaning the yard and eventually forming a (rather unbelievable) confidant-style relationship with the grieving mother, who is still in a horrible kind of limbo, as her son's body has never been found. Diana, looking for comfort, finds it in an affair with Amos while Bill is suspended from his job pending the investigation for which Amos’ testimony will prove so crucial. And elsewhere the dourness multiplies; Amos becomes a bit of a town pariah, and a further narrative-overkill death comes at just the point where we’re starting to suffer from compassion fatigue—bad things just won’t stop happening to these fundamentally good people.
As a director, Colangelo has a firm if cautious grasp on the material, but as a writer her grip is less sure. Oddly enough it’s the female characters who suffer most, with Chloe Sevigny's inherent oddness the only thing rescuing the character of Owen and James’ widowed mother from cipherdom, while the much more substantial role of Diana is given not just one but several credulity-straining psychological somersaults to pull off, and even Banks' talents can’t quite land all of them. But most detrimental to the finished film, aside from its general aura of one-gear overfamiliarity is its ending. Without wishing to spoil, after the mill the characters have been put through, everything's wrapped up in a couple of neatly mirroring scenes that suggest that all those endemic, intractable, literal life-or-death problems are now resolved because someone chose to do the "right" thing, and shazam, the story is over. And so whatever somber, minor-key message the film has worked hard to embody for 100-odd minutes is sold out in the last two or three, as Colangelo opts for unearned resolution, and cuts to neat and tidy black rather than dealing truthfully with the messy consequences that truth-telling can bring. [B-]