Small, Beautifully Moving Parts is one of those movies. Joining the increasing ranks of films that take as their subject our culture’s obsession with technology and the subsequent alienation experienced by its users, Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson’s film is gentler and less aesthetically assaultive than offerings like 0s & 1s and Catfish, but it’s not necessarily any subtler or more enlightening. While it may not be as unequivocally damning of our reliance on Skype, cellphones, and GPS systems as its thematic cousins (it shows that a total rejection of technology can be just as alienating as the alternative), it lamely rehashes the same points that the aforementioned movies have already done to death.
But Small, Beautifully Moving Parts isn’t just about our reliance on technology. It’s also a story about a somewhat indifferently pregnant woman, Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman), who sets off from her New York home on a trip west to reconnect with her family (and especially her estranged mother) in hopes of mentally positioning herself for own impending motherhood. As she travels to California, and on to Nevada and Arizona, the technophilic heroine eventually shucks off layer after layer of protective technological armor (her GPS dies, followed by her cellphone) and begins to wonder if her lack of motherly feeling is due to a sense of alienation resulting from her reliance on technology.
The early scenes go especially heavy on drawing mundane parallels between virtual life and the lack of sensitivity toward actual experience. Rather than feel a connection with her soon-to-be-born child when she looks at an ultrasound, all Sarah can do is marvel at the technology. No chance to score easy points about our simulacrum-oriented existence is left untapped. When Sarah winds up in Las Vegas to stay a few days with her boyfriend’s sister, the latter discourses on the deep sense of connection she feels with antiquity while being surrounded by a grotesquely ersatz castle.
Eventually, as Sarah moves toward her final, (nearly) technology-free encounter with her mother, Howell and Robinson ease up on the tired observations, but as our heroine traverses the open road and heads to a meditation facility, we’re left to reflect on the essential slightness of the central story. Whatever the source of Sarah’s feelings of emotional numbness, we’ve been so wrapped up in the schematics of the film’s reflections on technology and human interaction that we have little left to do but wonder at the emptiness of the underlying characters and narrative. We wind up floating through the film’s airy spaces, as unresponsive to the characters on the screen as Sarah too often is to the people in her own daily life.