Small, Beautifully Moving Parts opens with a fake-out documentary: a sprightly young woman who we will come to know as Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman) jams a microphone in the face of a selection of New Yorkers she’s deemed game for an interview, attempting to pick their brains about their over-reliance, or lack thereof, on technology. In brief snippets of responses, four or five interviewees in a row reluctantly answer that, yes, technology probably figures too prominently in their lives. A theme has already too clearly been established — never a great sign — but for its first few minutes, it’s impossible to tell which way the movie will go. If it’s going to remain a documentary, it could be promising. If it’s a narrative, it has a long, upwards way to go.
Small, Beautifully Moving Parts quickly drops the documentary pose, never to pick it up again, and flies into a montage that properly introduces us to Sarah, a thirty-something yuppie with a fetish for the intricacies of everyday machines. We see her, in snippets reminiscent of the interviews one scene earlier, pondering the engineering marvels inside of computers, clock radios, and even her own home pregnancy test, which turns out to be in perfect working order. At the tail end of a montage, she and her boyfriend (Andre Holland) are left with some major decisions to make. She can stay put and make a go of motherhood within the confines of her previous life, which will lead to a series of charmingly exasperating life lessons, as Jennifer Westfeldt recently demonstrated in Friends with Kids. Or she can hit the road by herself in a panic of hopeful self-discovery.
She picks the latter, though with Sarah’s penchant for technology, she can’t be said to be journeying alone with the voice on her GPS keeping her company. She travels first to L.A. for an awkward, eye-opening baby shower thrown by her sister (Sarah Rafferty) that’s filled with the type of shrill, professional moms she has no intention of becoming. From there, she high-tails it to Las Vegas for a bit of chakra help from her boyfriend’s eccentric sister (Susan Kelechi Watson). But the real destination of her journey is the desert hideaway of her estranged, off-the-grid, tech-averse mother (Mary Beth Peil). The connection between the small, beautifully moving parts of the baby inside her, the technology that surrounds her, and the relationship she tries to mend, will all be made eminently clear before Sarah has finished making peace with a mother who seems strangely willing to give her everything she needs.
One major, unfortunate aspect of this movie is that in offering earnestness in place of emotional depth, it requires viewers to cut it the slack that a higher-budget film would never require. “I’m only an indie movie,” Small, Beautifully Moving Parts seems to say, “so you can’t judge me too harshly: if I’m a touch simple around the edges, hey, I was made by low-budget filmmakers on the periphery of indie filmmaking; at least they’re getting my shots in focus and all my Foley levels even.” Of course, such concessions are a death knell if the audience requires anything more than a scrappy and sincerely-intentioned film.
Sincerity is not something Small, Beautifully Moving Parts lacks, but a genuine voice is. In the end, it’s clear that the movie is imitating a higher budget version of itself rather than blazing its own path. Its shots are so well-designed, its edits so film-school precise, its script so dedicated to staying on theme that you want to shout at the filmmakers (Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson) to go the final inch and try to say something about modern motherhood in their own voices. But Small, Beautifully Moving Parts just feels like the trial run of some ambitious filmmakers. In its defense, the film goes to a lot of trouble to focus on certain details that in a more subtle movie could be very beautiful: the feel of a desert morning through mist, the way a small child confuses a picture with a word. Certain small parts of Parts hint at greater work to come.