“Little Accidents,” director Sara Colangelo’s first feature (developed in the Sundance Institute’s Writers’ Lab from her 2010 short of the same name) takes place in a small Appalachian mining town in the aftermath of a fatal accident. The only survivor, Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook), is under pressure from the miners’ union to give testimony that one of the coal company’s executives, Bill Doyle (Josh Lucas) had previously refused to reexamine the company’s safety standards, despite his employees’ objections.
“Little Accidents” takes its time, but Holbrook’s confident performance makes his story riveting throughout, reflecting both the gravity of his situation and the enormous consequences his choice will have on the entire town — certain individuals in particular. Colangelo conveys to great effect the sense that everyone in the town is holding their breath ,watching Amos’s every move, and Holbrook has such a powerful presence that the audience is compelled to do the same.
“Little Accidents” carefully weaves together the stories of three individuals, paying close attention to the interplay of their different backgrounds: Amos, who lives with his father and has very little; Diana Doyle (Elizabeth Banks), a wealthy housewife who is married to Bill and has a son, JT; and Owen Briggs (Jacob Lofland, best known for his role as Neckbone in “Mud”), who lost his father in the accident and lives with his mother Kendra (Chloë Sevigny) and brother James (Beau Wright), who has Down syndrome.
Colangelo demonstrates an excellent sense of atmosphere, and her world has a persistently authentic feel. Amos’ hesitancy to testify against his employer throws into sharp relief an us-against-them mentality from the people who are victimized by the clearly delineated socioeconomic structure of the town. It even trickles down to the children who live there: Owen, who desperately wants to fit in with JT’s crowd, tries to impress them with his new iPod, bought from the money his family received upon his father’s death. The rich boys wrench it from his hands and laugh at him.
One afternoon, Owen swipes a few beers from the fridge and goes to meet the cool older boys from school in the forest. The boys accept his alcoholic offering and then promptly ditch him to go hang out somewhere else. Soon after they leave, JT reappears, and an angry and rejected Owen tells him that he hopes his father goes to jail. They get into a fight, which turns into a breathless chase through the woods. Peeking out from behind a tree, Owen throws a small rock at his pursuer, and JT, startled, trips and hits his head on a tree trunk, killing him instantly. Weeping and desperate, Owen hides JT’s dead body.
Compounded with the question of Boyd’s testimony, the search for JT builds a palpable tension in the film that has the potential to be broken at any moment, should Boyd, Owen or Bill tell the truth about their involvement in the tragedies. Colangelo mostly succeeds at sustaining this tension, except in an odd relationship that develops between Boyd and Diana that feels contrived in the scope of the entire film. Ultimately, the twist does little to raise the stakes, taking urgency away from the search for JT.
Along with Holbrook, Lofland is a highlight of the ensemble. In contrast to his scene-stealing performance in “Mud” — which primarily served as comic relief — this dark role comes as a shock, but proves what a capable young actor he is. In the scenes following JT’s death in particular, his all-consuming guilt and grief are powerfully expressed. At the beginning of “Little Accidents,” the film bears the traces of a coming-of-age story, as Owen struggles to make friends, take care of his family and navigate his future without his father. In the end, the sad lesson he really learns is just how much of our lives are determined by unexpected events.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A small scale drama with limited commercial potential, the movie is most likely to garner a very small domestic release and possibly find some appreciative viewers on VOD, but it’s ability to stand out is questionable.