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CANNES — Another small-scale American indie about a vet returning home from the Middle East, Return has quiet virtues and the distinction of focusing closely on one particular woman’s difficulty readjusting to being a wife and mother. This first feature by Liza Johnson, an artist who has made five shorts, traps the viewer, along with its subject, in the drudgery of daily life and maintains the same low-key tone throughout. But its observational qualities do open a window on a female viewing exposure, which should translate into a nice festival career and limited specialized commercial and home viewing exposure.
Returning to small-town, working-class Ohio after serving in a resupply unit at an unspecified overseas location, National Reservist Kelli (Linda Cardellini) is welcomed home by plumber husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and two young daughters. With little ado and no discussion of what it was like for her over there, Kelli resumes her boring job at a warehouse and goes out drinking with her girlfriends, who are also not only boring but annoyingly inane.
It’s just little things at first that suggest Kelli’s sense of dislocation: She uses the f-word in front of kids, she listens to bass-heavy boom box music while driving the kids around and has no patience to just sit around watching reality TV while eating junk food. One easily infers that, after a year of sharpened focus and a heightened sense of purpose, it’s impossible for her to just settle into the way things used to be.
As her disconnect becomes more pronounced, Kelli abruptly quits her job with no explanation. When she discovers Mike has been having an affair, they move apart and share custody of the girls, which subsequently tilts in Mike’s favor when Kelli is nailed with a DUI and has her license suspended. Once she falls into a genuine tailspin, the only options are crashing or pulling out of it; helping initially with the latter is a slightly nutty recluse (John Slattery, in an amusing change-of-pace role), who rescues Kelli from the banality of their AA group with a manly offering of self-shot venison, booze and sex in his rustic cabin.
Without extensively going into what Kelli experienced on her tour of duty — her catch-all response to that question is “A lot of people had it a lot worse than I did” — Johnson is able to suggest that, even if Kelli didn’t see real action or suffer any physical trauma, she’s no longer the same person she was; too many things happened to her mentally and emotionally for her to reconcile herself with her previous life.
A great deal rides on Cardellini’s performance, as she’s on camera almost continuously and in very close proximity to it at that. Very attractive but not too much so to be believable in this everyday context, she delivers by keeping you interested no matter how mundane the activity Kelli is performing. It’s a wholehearted performance, but not in an actressy way. Shannon plays it absolutely straight for once.
One significant drawback is that, although one is aware of their presence, the two daughters are characterized almost as an afterthought; when the older one is finally given a bit to do in the final stages, it’s obvious this is far too little and too late. Surely the welfare of her young girls would be the first thing on a long-absent mother’s mind both while away and once she’s back, but this realm is far too sketchily dealt with.
Anne Etheridge’s mobile cinematography maintains a watchful air of intimacy with Kelli in this film of modest ambition and achievement.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Directors’ Fortnight
Production: Fork Films presents a 2.1 Films/True Enough production
Direction-screenwriter: Liza Johnson
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, John Slattery, Talia Balsam, Paul Sparks, Rosie Benton, Louisa Krause, James Murtagh, Bonnie Swencionis
Producers: Noah Harlan, Ben Howe, Liza Johnson
Executive producers: Meredith Vieira, Amy Rapp, Abigail Disney
Director of photography: Anne Etheridge
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Costume designer: Erica Munro
Editor: Paul Zucker
Music: Joe Rudge
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