Updated Mon, Oct 31, 2011 9:28 am
Sarah Sparks is a 30-something woman more interested in the electronics inside her home pregnancy test than in the fact that it’s flashing the news that she’ll soon be sporting a baby bump.
Sparks — the female protagonist in the new feature film Small, Beautifully Moving Parts — is a self-described freelance technology specialist who gleefully embraces the very gadgets, electrical wires, and computer chips that most of us would admit we couldn’t live without these days. She adores the inner workings of a laptop or a frayed three-prong plug about as much as she loves her live-in boyfriend.
But when Sparks unexpectedly finds herself with child, she’s pushed out of her high-tech comfort zone. Her pending parenthood forces her to reexamine her own estranged relationship with a mother who is, ironically, living off the grid deep in the Arizona desert.
And so begins what Ohio University filmmaker Annie Howell describes as a "coming-of-parenthood road movie." With a bulging belly and a GPS to guide her, Sparks journeys across the United States to reconnect with family and sort out her complex feelings about her pregnancy.
"The going narrative is that this is the best experience of your life and that your whole life will change," says Howell, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Lisa Robinson. "It’s simply more complicated than that."
Small, Beautifully Moving Parts is the first full-length feature film from the creative team of Howell and Robinson, who met at film school at New York University. The project started life as the Sundance Channel online comedy series "Sparks," which featured quirky vignettes about Sarah Sparks’ adventures with technology.
“The series is very light, and we wanted to do something more complex, to give the characters harder experiences,” says Howell, an assistant professor of film.
Robinson says that she and Howell share a similar sensibility, and were both attracted to telling a story about a female character exploring situations not often shown on film. "We’re interested in technology and how it’s increased in status in our lives, such as how much we use it to navigate our emotional relationships, our connections to other people, and the world," she says.
Writing, shooting, and marketing a feature-length independent film are no small tasks. But the duo came into the process with industry credentials in hand. Howell has written and directed short films that have played internationally on the festival circuit, including at the prestigious SXSW Film Festival. Her work has aired on the Sundance Channel, PBS, and the Independent Film Channel.
An award-winning screenwriter, her most recent script is in development with producers Jordan Horowitz (The Kids Are All Right) and Jared Ian Goldman (Solitary Man). Robinson is an assistant professor of film at Long Island University who has written and directed three short films that have screened at film festivals around the world, including the renowned Cannes Film Festival. She currently has an IMAX film project for the Blue Man Group, as well as a feature script, Synapse, in development.
The character-driven script lent itself to a lean, modest shoot in which the filmmakers used the homes of family in Arizona and California, as well as public locations (such as a scenic stop at the Grand Canyon) for sets. They worked with a small cast of actors and a crew that included Ohio University graduate students in film. The production was funded by Ohio University, private investments, and donations.
"We were a movie set in a van," Howell recalls of the 21-day shoot. "While filming, we were still looking for locations. But that kind of ‘go with the flow’ attitude worked well for us."
The filmmakers are proud of the performances by the cast. Actress Mary Beth Peil, who’s had recurring roles in the TV shows "The Good Wife" and "Dawson’s Creek," plays the estranged mother. Anna Margaret Hollyman stars in her first leading feature film role as Sarah Sparks.
"It was exciting to see Anna Margaret take emotional leaps, but also hold onto the comic moments throughout," Robinson says.
Those moments are sometimes evoked through visual elements in the film, and not always through the dialogue.
"When we teach film students, we do advocate for less dialogue," Howell notes. "I encourage getting at the story through other tools—the lighting, framing, production design. How are those elements telling a story?"
Howell says she’s inspired by independent filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Broken Flowers), Jane Champion (The Piano, Bright Star), Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas; Wings of Desire), and Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) for their character-driven stories, use of dry humor, framing devices that evoke certain moods and tones, and their understanding of "how the image has the power to unlock the story," she says.
Like these and other indie filmmakers, Howell and Robinson targeted the national film festival circuit to get Small, Beautifully Moving Parts in front of audiences — as well as potential distributors for art film houses and DVD. In March, they scored a major success by gaining entry to the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where their film was one of only eight narrative competition features selected from an original pool of 984 submissions.
"It’s an important festival in the independent film world in that a lot of filmmakers have taken their first professional step here," Howell says. "It’s not as much of a market as Sundance or Toronto, though, so it has more of a relaxed feeling and the pressure is not as high."
The film screened three times to full houses and immediately garnered positive reviews from media outlets such as Variety, The Huffington Post, Film Threat, IFC.com, and Texas Public Radio.
And while the film concerns a 30-something woman’s pregnancy, it wasn’t perceived as a so-called “chick flick” by the diverse audience, which included 19-year-old male University of Texas students and middle-aged men and women. The film features several sympathetic male characters, such as Sarah’s supportive, level-headed beau Leon (Andre Holland) and her father Henry (Richard Hoag), who’s managing a long-distance love affair via Skype.
"I think the film has a wider appeal," Robinson says. "Even young men were into it and found the characters very appealing."
The filmmakers anticipate that the SXSW Film Festival could lead to bigger things for Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, and also put them in a strong position to launch their next feature film project, which is being conceived with Ohio University and Athens, Ohio, locations. A sales agent is shopping the film to potential distributors. In describing her expectations, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Howell reaches for a maternal metaphor.
"You hope this small child will go out into the world and do something, but you don’t know what will happen," she says. "Though we do have high hopes."
Editor's Note: Small, Beautifully Moving Parts won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Hamptons International Film Festival (Oct. 13-17). The festival partners with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to give an annual cash prize to a film that features a realistic and compelling portrayal of science and technology. Previous recipients have included the films Kinsey and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
This fall, the feature has screened at the Port Townsend Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival and New Orleans Film Festival, and will appear at the Siren Nation Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, and the Starz Denver Film Festival in November.
For more information about the film, visit www.smallbeautifullymovingparts.com.