Liza Johnson makes the jump from festival-competing shorts to features with a somewhat familiar slice of life in “Return.” Set in a blue-collar Rust Belt community, pic follows a young woman returning from military deployment who is attempting to fit back in with her friends, husband and two young children. Unspooling in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes, though it would be right at home at Sundance and other American fests, this amiable, stylish, low-key picture should strike chords with fans of filmmaking where performances are restrained, information is withheld and catharsis is avoided.
Army reservist Kelli (Linda Cardellini) has clearly been affected by experiences during her latest posting, not that she’s admitting as much. “A lot of other people had it a lot worse” is the hardly reassuring mantra she uses to deflect questions from concerned friends and family. Sensitive plumber husband Mike (Michael Shannon) has been attending a military spouses’ group with Army wives, and knows not to push Kelli before she’s ready to open up. But he loses sympathy when Kelli suddenly quits her day job in a ventilator factory, gets arrested on a DUI charge and places one of their daughters in jeopardy when she fails to collect her from an after-school activity. He’s less censorious about his own failings: an affair with pretty, young Cara Lee (Bonnie Swencionis), who works at the local car showroom.
Cardellini, still best known for her work in TV’s “Freaks & Geeks” and the “Scooby Doo” movies, is wholly credible in the lead role, and there’s deft work from the entire ensemble. But because so little is revealed and not much drama occurs, Johnson takes audience interest rather too much for granted in the pic’s first half.
A welcome jolt of energy and humor arrives with the introduction of Bud (John Slattery), a fellow member of the DUI program Kelli is ordered to attend. A Vietnam vet who lives in a shack in the woods next to a highly photogenic lake, Bud provides a temporary respite to Kelli’s woes — and more, when she resorts to desperate remedies to avoid another National Guard call-up.
“Return” is hardly the first movie about a soldier struggling to fit into civilian life, and it won’t be the last, but few others will be as controlled. Pic avoids such cliches as color-desaturated flashbacks to wartime trauma; instead, Anne Etheridge’s lensing nicely captures a built environment of carpet warehouses, light-industrial units and storage facilities, the frame frequently crisscrossed by telephone poles and cables. T. Griffin’s appropriately understated score is used sparingly.