Sarah Sparks loves technology. A freelance tech geek, she fixes everything from new computers to old radios and calls her home pregnancy test a “nifty gadget.” When its digital face displays the word “pregnant,” she comments to boyfriend, Leon, “It’s actually a pretty good quality font for a disposable,” before recognizing that her life is about to be altered by something much less predictable than technology. In first time feature directors Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson’s Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, Sarah (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is ambivalent about her pregnancy. She never expresses a desire not to have her child, but her concern is that she doesn’t relate well to living creatures. Sarah worries she doesn’t know how to be a parent, and thinks the solution is to seek out her estranged mother who’s “gone off the grid” without e-mail or a telephone. So Sarah treks across the west to find her and visits various family along the way. As she drives alone with only a GPS, Sarah quickly runs hundreds of miles off course when her navigator malfunctions, and her iPhone and electric toothbrush die in the Arizona desert. Even as SBMP explores the nature of family, self, and Sarah’s digital dependence, it underscores that technology can lead you astray and let you down as much as any human.
Considering the overabundance of female movie characters obsessed with either weddings or babies, Sarah Sparks is a wonderfully realistic counter image. She’s skeptical and charming, passionate about her profession, and competent with gadgetry. She’s a nuanced character we’re not likely to see outside of independent cinema.
Howell and Robinson wrote SBMP as a feature length version of their web series, Sparks, which also features character Sarah Sparks. The two envisioned the movie as a road film, using the locations they could most easily access, and shot with a small cast and crew trekking cross-country in a lone van. They tell Sarah’s story with significant humor, focusing on technology’s human foibles with a subtle comedy that points to the ridiculousness of communication, no matter the format. When Sarah’s father calls with the news that her mother doesn’t want to see her, he explains the speed of their communiqué: “I fed-exed her a postcard and she faxed back.”
In an interview with IFC at SXSW, Howell explained their interest was in exploring how “people’s relationships to technology have taken on the qualities of human relationships.” Throughout the film we see Sarah just as affected by tech as by people, smiling affectionately at her GPS when it calls her by name. She repairs things for everyone in her family, both saving her sister’s laptop from toddler pee and fixing her father’s Skype for his daily chat with his online girlfriend, but she finds writing her mother a letter “too analog” and prefers driving to Arizona instead.
Though much is made of Sarah’s connection to cords and a digital existence, her ambivalence toward impending parenthood stems more from her mother’s distance than any social disconnection. For someone who relates better to machines, she has an intense curiosity about other humans that’s shown in improvised sequences where she interviews strangers about their views on technology, with one particularly revealing series where she stops off at the Grand Canyon to visit the site of an old, joyous photo she took with her mother as a child. Her concerns turn toward family as she asks several tourists if they ever look at happy vacation photos and recall that the day had been terribly opposite their smiling faces. The more questions she asks, the more apparent Sarah’s actual fears become.
Anna Margaret Hollyman is engaging as the skeptical Sarah, making her both vulnerable and funny, which is a feat considering she spends much of the movie alone. Small, Beautifully Moving Parts is quietly charming as it probes our modern anxieties about our increasing dependence on tech and whether its presence in our lives deadens us to other humans. The film doesn’t currently have U.S. distribution, but the filmmakers plan to distribute it via DIY channels if no deal happens. Check out the trailer below and demand to see it in a theater near you.