In a blue-collar, West Virginia town, a mining accident kills 10 workers in the dusty pits and leaves several members of its community coughing up grief and despair. The townsfolk, frustrated and starting to point their fingers at the hasty corporate management, all have to grapple with the tragedy and try to restore feelings of normalcy. The set-up for Little Accidents, the debut feature for writer/director Sara Colangelo, hints at building a tense conflict between the various residents altered by the event. However, despite terrific work from a good ensemble of character actors, the film never achieves either the complexity or the rising tension its premise promises.
What does work is the drama’s specificity. Colangelo shot the film in a West Virginia mining town and even used a coal mine as a major set. (Several shots of the mine show big piles of ash covering up a hole, an apt metaphor for a town unable to recover from the gaping wound in its midst.) It’s a town as ordinary as it is idyllic. Schoolchildren bike past a cemetery with mining helmets on the crosses that mark the graves. Tinted blues wash over the working-class neighborhoods, a symbol for the despairing mood in town, as well as the blue-collar population.
Meanwhile, many of the moments with the central characters feature stillness and silence, giving them time to look inward at their own mistakes. They wallow in grief but are also alert, nervous that the secret they hide will become public knowledge if they look too guilty. Among these anxious townsfolk is Amos, played by a wonderful, low-key Boyd Holbrook.
Amos is the sole survivor of the mining tragedy whose unreliable memory makes him an unhelpful witness for a class-action lawsuit. He also has a busted right hand from the incident, but gives no sign of how it ended up defunct. “It’s hard to know you’re the only one left,” he atones. “I just want to be normal again and have everything back to the way it was.”
The workers’ union believes Amos is the only person whose testimony can bring a small sort of retribution on the shoddy mine management. Of the authority figures who may be responsible, a popular local target is Bill Doyle (Josh Lucas), who tries his best to re-assure wife Diane (Elizabeth Banks) that nothing is wrong. However, broken windshield glass on Diane’s SUV makes her fear otherwise. Diane unravels, smoking and wallowing around the house with nothing to do.
On the working-class side of town, young teen Owen (Mud’s Jacob Lofland) is still wrecked from his father’s death in the mine, as is his workaholic mom, Kendra (Chloë Sevigny). Owen has heard the rumors about dropping safety standards and corruption at the mine where his dad works, which creates some tension with a popular group of high-schoolers, including Bill and Diane’s son, JT (Travis Tope). Awash with fury, Owen and JT get into a fight in the woods one day. As Owen flees the taller and more affluent teen, JT trips and crushes his head on a rock, dying on impact. A distraught Owen hides the body nearby and alerts his younger brother, James (Beau Wright), who witnessed Owen and JT getting into an argument, not to utter a word. From then, Owen staggers around, trying to come to terms with what he has done.
These various conflicts, between ordinary people and the collisions beyond their control that send their lives into disrepair, should lead to slowly building tension during the rest of Little Accidents. However, Sara Colangelo’s film rarely rises above being understated, and is too minor to resonate long beyond the final shot.
Instead, the shifts in the various storylines often emerge from forced plotting. Colangelo forces the characters closer together in ways that feel too neat and unconvincing. For instance, a romantic tryst between Diane and Amos is barely telegraphed and doesn’t make a lot of sense given what we know about the characters. Meanwhile, Owen’s guilt about the incident with JT is eventually resolved in a way that is not just predictable, but without the emotional catharsis needed to be either riveting or meaningful. Meanwhile, despite the tidy story strands, there are a couple of loose ends that beg questioning, such as why JT’s body is never recovered from the woods despite weeks of searches from the missing teen in the vicinity.
While the plotting is ordinary and little of it builds to a worthwhile climax, it is hard to fault many of the actors for their strong work. Lofland is terrific, especially in scenes where he interacts with the weight of his actions. We can feel his torment with just a cautious look or a deep sigh. Holbrook is also excellent as a man trying to make sense of the colliding forces around him. Sevigny is strong as a mother doing her best to deflect the tragic past that has come; however, the screenplay could have used more of her struggle to tend to her family after a difficult loss.
The only member of the cast who is not quite on the same level as the rest is Banks. Although she is far from inept, her storyline as a privileged woman trying to find purpose in her life is just not as interesting as the surrounding subplots. Much of Diane’s behavior comes from wallowing in grief and ennui, but the actor struggles to mine the same depths as the rest of the ensemble..
Shot with subdued lighting by Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station), Little Accidents allows its the actors the space to bring out their most wrenching work. The camera lingers on characters in moments of quiet despair. Some of the cinematography is also stylized, through two contrasting tracking shots. The film begins by tracking Amos as he descends into the darkness of the mine on the day of the accident. Another tracking shot, near the end, shows Owen ascending a staircase, walking from a spot of dim lighting to brightness as he enters JT’s room. The two tracking shots signify the different trajectories in the story, as the characters move from murkiness and mystery into wholeness and enlightenment.
Little Accidents is a well-acted slice of bleak Appalachian life, but the story fails to cohere the various strands of drama and despair into a package that is either thrilling or emotionally devastating. Colangelo’s screenplay needed to build toward a stunning conclusion that offered strong closure to all of the characters. Instead, she presses their conflicts together in contrived ways too early on, causing the film to meander into melodrama when it should be sharpening its dramatic focus.
Little Accidents works as a showcase for a fine ensemble, but writer/director Sara Colangelo fails to build the drama to an emotionally satisfying finish.