Like the best road movies, Small, Beautifully Moving Parts features a pair of individuals newly thrust together, unsure what to make of one another, yet unable to separate. Of course, that inseparability is usually one forced by the situation; in this film, the bond joining these travelers is umbilical: Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is pregnant.
Sarah is a Brooklyn-based "freelance technologist," a woman with an insatiable desire to understand how gadgets work. Writer-directors Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson open the film with a montage of Sarah hanging fliers offering her services, interviewing people on the street about their relationship with technology, and taking apart everything from computers to old transistor radios to lay out their guts and see how all those titular moving parts interact.
The same curiosity applies to the gadget she holds as that montage ends: a home pregnancy test. When it comes up positive, her husband, Leon (Andre Holland), is giddy with surprise, while she merely notes the surprisingly nice quality of the font in the device's digital display. Later, at the first ultrasound, she asks the technician about the technology being used, and notes the image "looks just like a baby." Leon has to remind her that it is, in fact, a baby.
These moments have an easygoing charm, and Hollyman's natural likability serves to humanize Sarah even for those who might not share her technical obsessions. This is a character that could easily be portrayed as detached from humans in favor of things, but Hollyman presents her as someone who simply takes immense joy in discovery, in understanding how things work.
Unfortunately, that also telegraphs a little too bluntly exactly where this film is going from the start: Becoming a parent can be overwhelming and confusing, but for someone with an innate desire to understand the mechanics of things, that uncertainty is devastating. It's a little too easy to map out, in the film's first few minutes, the emotional journey Sarah will take toward accepting a little mystery in her life.
That journey takes her to California, where her sister throws her a baby shower that only serves to underline everything Sarah fears about becoming a mother. The little bundles of tears, screams and filthy diapers in attendance don't respond to rational analysis, and she ends up on the front stoop in tears herself. From there, she drops in on her dad, too busy with a Skype romance with a Brazilian woman to recognize his daughter's anxiety — a nicely written comment on technology simultaneously bringing people together and distancing them.
Sarah's primary quest is to locate her estranged mother, who is living "off the grid" somewhere in the desert, having abandoned technology the same way she abandoned her technologist daughter — one of the film's slightly on-the-nose metaphors. The filmmakers do take her on an interesting side trip to Vegas first, and it's there that she meets up with Leon's massage-student sister Towie (Susan Kelechi Watson). Towie, who spends time investigating Sarah's aura and locating her qi animal, is as new-agey as they come and should be as foreign to Sarah's rational world as her flaky mother.
But Towie is warm and welcoming, while Sarah's mother is cold and self-centered, and it's here that Howell and Robinson most effectively communicate the notion that none of these ways of approaching the world — whether spiritualist, rationalist, or technologist — is inherently bad. It's simply a matter of how you apply that philosophy to your interactions with others.
Sarah ends her trip, in the usual road-movie tradition, closer to and with a greater affinity for her unborn traveling partner. As obvious and expected as this turn of events is, the filmmakers and Hollyman create such an endearing character in Sarah that one still wants to see her get there. Small, Beautifully Moving Parts isn't always completely elegant about getting its point across, but its imperfections are only human — a quality, as Sarah eventually realizes, that can have its own appeal.