Moral crises abound in Sara Colangelo’s brooding debut feature, Little Accidents (2014). A small mining community in the Appalachian Mountains is devastated by the deaths of ten of its workers when a mine collapses. After a few months, the sole survivor Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) returns from hospital to find himself in the middle of a court case surrounding the disaster, which leaves a deep level of distrust and resentment in the community. There’s ambiguity, too, in Jenkins’ own memory of the event, which he says is “blurry”. Overwhelming him, perhaps, is the knowledge that on the one hand, if Jenkins testifies against his bosses, he might put the whole mine, and its workers, in jeopardy.
If Jenkins stays silent he loses the families of the deceased both a financial payoff and a shot at justice. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to young high school freshman Owen Briggs (Jacob Lofland, from Jeff Nichols’ 2012 film Mud), and Elizabeth Banks’ Diana Doyle, wife of one of the mine’s executives, whose lives become embroiled in Jenkins’ re-entry into his community as the after-effects of the mining accident become all-consuming. Doyle’s son JT (Travis Tope) is a casual bully of Owen, and after one altercation JT falls head-first into a rock and is accidentally killed. Owen quietly hides the body in a hurry, but his own guilt is only exacerbated when Diana and her husband Bill (Josh Lucas) go public with their missing son. They have their own concerns, as Bill’s position in the mining firm is threatened.
Holbrook is exceptional as Jenkins, developing a complex character who stars of as a stuttering and shy outcast into an individual who understands the weight – and responsibility – his position as the only survivor holds. Entangling himself in an affair with Banks’ distraught Diana – also at her best in a rare dramatic role – he reveals himself as a broken man ready for a moral rebirth. Where acting is strong, it’s matched far too often by a screenplay that can come across as inconsequential. Colangelo’s film is extended from her 2010 short which screened at Sundance, and it’s easy to think that Little Accidents needs even more room to breathe (although the director thankfully never lets the story become an expansive, Traffic-like narrative, keeping rigidly to its three main characters).
The film could have done with spending more time on fleshing out Amos and Diana’s affair, whilst Chloë Sevingny’s contribution, playing Owen’s widowed mother, is little more than a cameo (when what’s needed is more than a glimpse of her grief and moral indignance in light of someone who lost a husband and got so little in return). However, Colangelo is an assured director of mood and atmosphere, and the community – filmed as it is in a real mining town in West Virginia – is nothing less that authentic, powerfully presenting the startling ‘white-trash’ amongst the BMW-driving middle-classes. Little Accidents may be a little too sober, lacking the occasional spark that would make it more than just a film about moral decision points – but it’s a likable small-town drama all the same.
Sundance London 2014 takes place at the O2 Arena from 25-27 April. For more of our coverage, follow this link.