All the little accidents of this film’s title stem directly from a single, far larger one: a coal mine explosion in a small West Virginia town that leaves 10 men dead. The mining company strains to pass this off as a freak occurrence triggered by lightning strikes, though it quickly becomes evident that a cover-up is in effect, as the lone survivor left partially crippled by the accident, taciturn Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook), is pressured by families of the deceased to speak up to facilitate an immense cash settlement while co-workers, wanting to maintain their livelihood, hound him to keep quiet. Refreshingly, writer-director Sara Colangelo abstains from turning the emotional center of her feature-film debut into a quest for justice, a la North Country, or an investigative procedural into the explosion itself, opting instead for a movingly authentic exploration of a working-class milieu and the psychological and economic trauma that ripples through the town in the event’s aftermath.
Little Accidents follows a triumvirate of characters, beginning with Amos and branching out to include Diane Doyle (Elizabeth Banks), wife of Bill (Josh Lucas), the mine’s middle manager on the hook for the calamity, whose family life is made doubly worse when their 15-year-old son, J.T. (Travis Tope), goes missing. Owen (Jacob Lofland), whose father died in the explosion, knows what happened to J.T., but struggles to come clean. All their lives inevitably intertwine in storylines regrettably over-reliant on melodramatic machinations, like an affair between Diane and Amos that never stimulates any sense of the pent-up feelings supposedly causing them to act out. And Owen’s entering of Diane’s orbit to help her with chores around the house is a disappointingly transparent device to do little beyond manifest his sense of guilt. Still, the characters’ various intersections are spurred less by divinity than the plausible proximity of small-town life, and how their way of life can, in one way or another, be traced directly to the mine. And it’s this latter detail, in spite of the film’s overall predictable plotting, that Colangelo captures to exquisite effect, deftly pulling off a conclusion of knotty emotions that forces its characters to confront the truth without naïvely suggesting that such honesty is a magical elixir.
Little Accidents is less interesting as a film about individuals than their place in the context of a larger community, one that’s suffered two serious blows in lockstep and will never be the same. Each character is brought to the precipice of a decision involving the idea of right and wrong, and while their respective choices are morally cut and dried, the full ramifications of what they choose reach further to affect both the community and the people within it. Amos’s actions threaten to bring the mine and, in turn, the town and its very existence that much closer to obsolescence, while Owen’s decision makes clear that there’s no bringing back what’s already gone. It’s low-key heroic fatalism—a willful and dignified surrendering to their circumstances, summarized in a scene when Amos takes Owen into the mine for the first time to have a look at the place where his father perished. “What do you think it’s like to die?” Owen wonders. And that’s just the thing, as they’re all in the process of finding out.