The title of director Sara Colangelo’s feature debut, Little Accidents, is both misleading and perfectly appropriate. Most of its events are far from “little” in their impact, yet they stem from split-second, completely innocuous choices. The decisions that seem small, and perhaps even justified, lead to the most troubling moral quandaries. Are tragedies truly accidents, if it seems so easy to assign blame? Colangelo deftly explores that intersection of fate and personal responsibility, and the result is an intriguing web of secrets, even if she doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Based on her award-winning short film of the same name, Little Accidents finds Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) struggling to cope after emerging as the sole survivor of a coal mining accident in a small Appalachian town. Members of the union want him to speak out against company CEO Bill Doyle (Josh Lucas) for not acknowledging safety concerns, but other miners worry the company will be forced to shut down. Meanwhile, teenager Owen (Jacob Lofland) struggles to deal with the death of his father, but soon finds his problems compounded when he accidentally kills Doyle’s son while playing in the woods. Both Amos and Owen become entangled with Doyle’s wife Diane (Elizabeth Banks), making the decision of what to confess, and to whom, even more complicated.
It’s an ambitious structure, and one that mostly pays off for the majority of the film, as the three protagonists find themselves drawn to each other by guilt – Diane for the accident her husband may have caused, Owen for what happened to her son, and Amos for surviving while his friends died. Each interaction feels precarious and delicate, as if one wrong word might send someone spiraling further into sorrow. Banks, mostly known for more comedic fare, holds her own in some of the more somber moments, but the real stand-outs are Lofland (a gifted young actor viewers may recognize from Mud) and Holbrook, the latter of whom often communicates more about blue-collar hardships with his lanky, limping frame than actual words. It’s as though he’s carrying the weight of the world – or perhaps his dead friends – on his shoulders.
Colangelo wisely keeps the class tensions simmering beneath the surface rather than allowing them to boil into melodrama. There are no scenes of grieving working-class townspeople loudly confronting Bill Doyle about mismanagement, no lengthy courtroom monologues about how the mining company is exploiting its workers. That would be far too simple. Colangelo trusts her audience to pick up on small details: black fingerprints that stain furniture, sideways glances between union workers, the way weathered men cough after years of inhaling dust. The thematic parallels between storylines – Owen pressures his younger brother to keep quiet about what happened just as the townspeople encourage Amos to bend his testimony to their respective ends – never feel forced. While other directors might turn the situation into a heavy-handed allegory about The Everyman vs. The System, in Colangelo’s hands, there are no good guys or bad guys, only broken, scarred people trying to get by the best they can.
Unfortunately, the filmmaker remains so committed to languor over noisy conflict that the final act feels stale compared with what came before. A key confrontation is seen, but not heard, and the consequences of Amos’ and Owen’s decisions are never shown. The momentum is lost, and the intense slow burn gradually dissipates rather than igniting in a more spectacular finish. It’s a real let-down given what comes before — Colangelo crafts a world that feels so lived-in and organic that it’s only natural to want to observe the consequences play out. Still, aside from a botched ending, Little Accidents is a solid feature debut from a promising filmmaker. One could even argue its third act missteps are part of the point: life’s accidents rarely have dramatically satisfying resolutions.