A strong, character-driven riposte to “Don’t ask, don’t tell” that never descends into polemicism, shipshape indie drama “A Marine Story” finds a longtime servicewoman returned to home-front life against her will. There she finds several souls battling their own demons, which don’t make hers any easier to deal with — at first. While not an achievement on the scale of last year’s superb “The Messenger,” this, too, is an impartial look at U.S. military service that movingly commands respect for the personnel while requiring neither support nor assigning blame for the politics behind unpopular war efforts. Fall self-distribution is planned.
Billed onscreen as “based on true stories,” writer-director-editor Ned Farr’s feature has tough-as-nails Alex (Dreya Weber) returning to her desert hometown after four Iraq deployments. We only gradually realize she’s not so much taking a break as being forced into one: Someone accused her of “conduct unbecoming,” and now she’s been severed from the military branch she served with great distinction (as family members had for generations) just a year before pension eligibility.
So, no wonder she’s drinking hard upon her return to a large, empty family home in a small town that has grown much more depressed since she last touched down. A chance encounter finds her putting military might to work by apprehending a meth-addict shoplifter, whose enabling girlfriend, Saffron (Paris Pickard), an only slightly less desperate case, is given a judicial choice between jail and military service. A sympathetic police friend coerces a reluctant Alex to be the preparatory drill sergeant who can steel the 20-year-old physically and psychologically for what she’ll actually face in boot camp. Saffron is a brattily ungrateful student for some time, but she does come around.
Meanwhile, Alex deals with her forced career severance and civilian resettlement with varying degrees of grace. Onetime high school boyfriend Leo (Anthony Michael Jones), still sweet on her, introduces her to some local barfly buddies — two of whom take significant offense at her beating them at arm-wrestling. Alex reconnects with yoga-instructor pal Holly (Christine Mourad), who freaks her out by taking her to a lesbian bar; even after being ejected by the Marines, Alex is still afraid of being outed — an irony underlined by the late introduction of a key figure that serves to comment on the ludicrous strictures that might eject the military’s best and brightest.
Despite the rather bleak setting and content, “A Marine Story” has tough-love humor and affection for its characters, who become very likable as things proceed. A violent blast of climactic meth-lab drama works well, as does a poignant, reserved coda. Through it all, Weber (the helmer’s spouse and star of his prior feature, “The Gymnast”) is first-rate, and other cast members are assured; ditto the modest but expert assembly.