The difficulty of being a woman in a man’s world — namely, the U.S. military — is the clear takeaway from “Fort Bliss,” the story of an army medic and single mother who returns from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and tries to make up for lost time with her young child. But it’s hard not to watch writer-director Claudia Myers’ solid, affecting drama without picking up on a similarly bothersome subtext about the dearth of substantial mainstream roles for an actress as good as Michelle Monaghan. Chronically underserved by Hollywood (with the arguable recent exception of HBO’s “True Detective”), she gives a typically fine, flinty and effortlessly moving performance in a low-budget indie vehicle that deserves broader exposure than it’s likely to receive in limited theatrical and VOD release.
A prologue set in Afghanistan’s Helmand province offers a brief, persuasive survey of the horrors of war and immediately establishes how well equipped Staff Sgt. Maggie Swann (Monaghan) is to deal with them, as she calmly and efficiently removes a deadly piece of shrapnel from the side of a wounded comrade. Maggie is very good at her job, but that satisfaction has come at no small price. A scene later, she’s back home in El Paso, Texas, where she’s awkwardly reunited with her 5-year-old son, Paul (Oakes Fegley), who barely seems to remember her after her 15-month absence. The boy has been raised in the meantime by his father, Richard (Ron Livingston), and Dad’s new girlfriend, Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who’s clearly taken over the mom role in Paul’s life.
Not one to back down from a challenge, Maggie drags her son, kicking and screaming, to the small apartment she rents near Fort Bliss, the U.S. Army post where she decides to re-enlist (and where much of the film was actually shot). From there, we observe the long, painful yet rewarding process of mother and son rebuilding their relationship, frequently losing patience with each other in the process: Paul refuses to eat his dinner, Maggie explodes in anger, and so on. If these scenes of domestic angst and gradual bonding feel familiar, they’re sharpened by various milieu-specific details, none more quietly heartrending than the sight of Maggie dropping a dozing Paul off at a sort of Army-brat daycare center in the wee hours of the morning before heading off to work.
Bluntly yet effectively, Myers dramatizes the double standards that are applied to women serving in the armed forces, and the sense of unbelonging that so many of them feel among peers and civilians alike. At Fort Bliss, Maggie has to earn the respect to which most men with her qualifications would feel naturally entitled. Things are no easier on the outside; Richard accuses her of abandoning their son, to which she angrily and quite reasonably asks why a mother should have to give up her vocation or love of country. To its credit, the film balances its argument by introducing a simpatico male figure in the form of Maggie’s superior, Garver (Freddy Rodriguez), whose own career success has taken a significant emotional toll. Not coincidentally, it’s Garver who informs Maggie that she’s about to be uprooted once more, her redeployment to Afghanistan arriving far sooner than she expected or wanted.
At around the halfway point, a certain textbook element begins to seep into the script, which strains to cover its bases, so to speak, by weaving nearly every possible trauma and hazard of military life into Maggie’s personal experience. Her sleep is regularly disturbed by PTSD-related nightmares. Her passionate relationship with a hunky auto mechanic (Manolo Cardona) brings back memories of almost having been raped by a male officer (an all-too-common experience in the military, minus the “almost”). The final decision that awaits her — whether to accept her orders, or to exploit a loophole that will enable her to stay with Paul — is resolved in mechanical, heavy-handed fashion.
But even when the plotting feels strained or inauthentic, the Asche & Spencer score a mite too insistent, Monaghan’s performance rings true. Maggie is tough and formidable, yet also practical, fair-minded and willing to give others the benefit of the doubt; the actress’ final scenes with young Fegley are meant to put a lump in your throat, and they do. As it happens, Monaghan covered markedly similar territory in the 2008 indie drama “Trucker,” in which she played a single mom reconnecting with the child she abandoned 10 years earlier. Strong as she was in that film and this one, it’s dispiriting to consider the gap between this sort of sensitive, finely chiseled character work and the one-dimensional supportive/shrewish wife/girlfriend roles the studios usually see fit to saddle her with. “Fort Bliss” is a flawed little gem of a movie, but Monaghan’s flawless performance is its own quiet call to arms.