“Small, Beautifully Moving Parts” is an independent film by New York filmmakers Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson. The film screened at the 2012 Phoenix Film Festival back in April and has continued a successful film festival run, garnering accolades and awards ranging from Best Actress (Anna Margaret Hollyman) at the Fargo Film Festival and Audience Choice Award for Best American Independent at the River Run International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“Small, Beautifully Moving Parts” follows the cross-country adventure of Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman). Sarah is a technophile that coo’s and ga-ga’s over electronic gadgets and circuits. When she becomes pregnant, her uncertainties about motherhood trigger an impulsive road trip to the source of her anxiety: her long estranged mother living far away and ‘off-the-grid,’ in a new-age cult in Queen Creek, Arizona. SBMP was one of the first films to sell out at the Phoenix Film Festival, so it certainly piqued my curiosity. Because I find cinematic depictions of pregnancy and childbirth to be both vile and repulsive, I forced myself to watch this film.
Sarah is completely under-whelmed by the thought of being a mother. Electronics and gadgets give her all the matronly satisfaction she needs. She can nurture them and make them better all of the time. The child growing inside her will soon disconnect from the motherboard and operate independently of the mainframe. This is a contingency Sarah is not prepared for, so she travels to Los Angeles looking for advice from her soccer mom sister Emily (Sarah Rafferty). Surrounded by screaming, wetting, barfing and conniving children at a baby shower in Sarah’s honor, Sarah is not fooled for a second by the beleaguered mothers and defeated fathers who try to tell her how wonderful her life is about to become. She bolts from her sister’s house, rents a van and drives to her father’s home in Nevada. On the way, she visits her boyfriend’s sister Towie (Susan Kelechi Watson) who helps her look at her new experience from a funny, electro-evolutional aspect. After Sarah locates her father Henry (Richard Hoag), he bluntly informs her that he isn’t really one to give advice on child-rearing, deferring all matronly inquiries to Sarah’s mother, who has been incommunicado; contacting Sarah’s father only once (via FAX machine) since abandoning Sarah and her sister many years ago.
As Sarah travels through Arizona to locate her mother, she stops at the Grand Canyon and interviews several strangers, inquiring on how they would define motherhood and what it means to be a family. The candid, mildly Cinéma vérité responses reveal an honest contrast to motherhood and raising a child or a family: defeated optimism punctuated by placated joy. When Sarah finally does locate her mother Marjorie (Mary Beth Peil), their reunion is far from even being considered ‘bittersweet.’ Her mother only grudgingly acknowledges her daughter and pathetically tries to take credit for what her daughter has accomplished in her life. Their encounter is awkward, at best, and almost expected, at worst. Sarah departs from her mother with an empty sense of fulfillment.
I spoke with director Howell and her mother after the screening and she gave me every assurance that her film was not based on her own life experience (her mom was very nice and supportive by the way). Howell and Robinson’s film was a very honest and realistic take on motherhood in the modern, technological age. An age of text over touch, update over relate and friending over friendship. SBMP is both a bold departure and entertaining ‘road’ film, presenting in contrast what children are for many women; this is not the happy, revolving, resolving culmination of womanhood and demystifies the notion of every woman’s inherent desire to be a mother. SBMP presents the so-called ‘maternal instinct’ as more of an operating system: sometimes, you have to format the hard drive with your own OS, not necessarily the one handed down from generation to generation.
From the beginning of the film, Howell and Robinson smartly and sincerely establish that this will not be a celebration of gestation, or a lighthearted take on the wacky and whimsical distraction we call pregnancy. I am glad I managed to overcome my own personal abhorrence of the topic, as SBMP honestly portrays the enormous emotional divide that sometimes exists between being a mother and motherhood. “Small, Beautifully Moving Parts” takes what could be the simple subject of maternal apprehension, and presents it in a very appealing, expertly crafted film. A nod to the moms and an enjoyably personal, perspicuous look at motherhood.
Final Take – Beautifully Moving.