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When the most intense experiences of daily life are repeated across generations, they become the historical touchstones of our cultural identity. By natural progression they're woven into our movies, where dreams and nightmares are etched in light.
The returning soldier (a subject previously examined here in the HBO documentary "How to Fold a Flag" and the 1956 Paul Newman drama "The Rack") has been a mainstay in film since the earliest days of the silent era. When you consider upcoming changes in the ranks of the American military, more and more of those soldiers are now likely to be female. And since independent film is where social progress typically finds its earliest, least compromised expression, we're now seeing more richly observant films like "Return," a sensitively rendered drama that marks a promising debut for writer-director Liza Johnson, in rewarding collaboration with underrated actress Linda Cardellini.
Cardellini won hearts with her appealing role on the beloved, short-lived TV series "Freaks and Geeks" (1999-2000) and deepened her range over 126 episodes of "ER" (2003-09). She's perfectly cast here as Kelli, a National Guard reservist and married mother of two. Still young but spiritually exhausted, she's just returned home after what she later suggests was a routine deployment in the Middle East. Iraq or Afghanistan -- it doesn't matter which, and the movie never specifies. Either way, there's no such thing as a routine deployment, and Kelli returns to her previous life in struggling, small-town Ohio, adrift in a state of neurasthenic limbo. War changes you, even if Kelli claims that "other people had it a lot worse." Kelli may be suffering from some degree of PTSD, but she's getting no apparent help from military counselors.
Sensing that change and expecting to hear cathartic war stories, Kelli's girlfriends gently prod her for details with an awkward combination of morbid curiosity and that cloying quality of pop-psych sincerity that prevails in the age of Dr. Phil. There's another nice detail when they're celebrating Kelli's return with a girls' night out at the local watering hole: Kelli's beer is served in a plastic mug ringed with flashing LED's. She's never seen anything so ridiculously kitschy and mundane. Time to beat a hasty retreat.
At home, Kelli's plumber husband Mike (Michael Shannon) is well-meaning but confused by his wife's behavior, muddling through the "spouse group" rule book and urging her to "take it easy" when she's a little too eager for an afternoon quickie. He might have other reasons for deflecting her desire: Kelli can read between the lines when local hottie Cara Lee (Bonnie Swencionis) reveals that she "looked after the kids" on at least one occasion while Kelli was away. So, who was looking after Mike?
Those kids grew quickly in Kelli's absence, but they're still emotionally needy little girls and the youngest, about three now, shows signs of unsettling introversion, as if she'd been left alone too often. Mike and the kids can share a few laughs watching "America's Funniest Home Videos," but Kelli just stares blankly at the TV, oblivious to whatever's on. She couldn't care less, which is the same attitude that prompts her to quit her old job at a small local factory, where she riveted aluminum air ducts for 12 years before the war.
Kelli experiences other moments of homecoming dislocation in familiar settings like the local thrift-store and her daughter's cheerleading practice. We're reminded of the scene in "The Hurt Locker" when the bomb-squad daredevil and adrenalin junkie played by Jeremy Renner returns from Iraq and looks completely adrift in a grocery store, staring blankly at an overwhelming selection of breakfast cereals.
Cardellini and Johnson map Kelli's emotional landscape with outward subtlety and inward precision. While avoiding standard-issue plot devices like traumatic flashbacks and home-front histrionics, they find abundant moments of truth in silence, as when Kelli sleeps on the floor in her daughters' bedroom. No explanation required; it's just one of those behavioral choices between actor and director that feels absolutely right.
Oddly enough, the only time "Return" seems to falter is when it gently veers toward conventional melodrama. Yet even here, Johnson steadfastly avoids the obvious, and both she and Cardellini dare us to dislike Kelli as she grows erratically prone to "bad girl" behavior. When Kelli gets a DUI and her driver's license revoked, it's really not a good idea to hook up with the Vietnam veteran (John Slattery, from AMC's "Mad Men") she meets in a court-mandated A.A. meeting. He's harmless, more or less, but Kelli may not be: A potentially dangerous episode of forgetfulness proves Mike to be a more responsible parent (a point driven home by Shannon's finely shaded performance) and makes you wonder if Mike's little side-dish might be a better mom for his kids.
That "Return" would even suggest such a thing is further proof of Johnson's skill in defying expectations. With a title that ultimately assumes two meanings, "Return" offers no false comforts as it arrives at a daring conclusion with its gender-switch perspective on the returning soldier's experience. It also provides an ironic reversal: We've seen loud, anguished emotional extremes from men in coming-home dramas like Oliver Stone's "Born on the 4th of July" and, more recently, Jim Sheridan's "Brothers," but "Return"commands our attention by allowing its female survivor to suffer in silence, never suggesting that one coping mechanism is better than another.
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A Seattle-based freelancer, Jeff Shannon has been writing about film and filmmakers since 1985, for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (1985-92) and The Seattle Times (1992-present). He was the assistant editor of Microsoft's "Cinemania" CD-ROM and website (1992-98), where he worked with rogerebert.com editor Jim Emerson, and was an original member of the DVD & Video editorial staff at Amazon.com (1998-2001). Disabled by a spinal cord injury since 1979 (C-5/6 quadriplegia), he occasionally contributes disability-related articles to New Mobility magazine, and is serving his second term on the Washington State Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.
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