The sudden disappearance of a family member is usually a springboard for thriller conventions in film. But writing-directing duo Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell’s sophomore feature “Claire in Motion” takes that premise down another path — à la Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” albeit with a rather different style and sensibility, the inexplicable vanishing of a loved one here uneasily forces those left behind to examine their own lives, and to ponder just how well they really knew the missing person. Breaking Glass is releasing this quiet, intriguing drama to U.S. theaters and on demand Jan. 13 after a successful fest run.
We meet 40-ish mathematician Claire Hunger (Betsy Brandt from “Breaking Bad”) as she sleepily bids goodbye to fellow-academic spouse Paul (Chris Beetem). An ornithologist, he’s taken lately to going off into wilderness areas near their home in Athens, Ohio, taking minimal supplies and living off the land for a few days at a time. But his failure to return home soon worries Claire and son Connor (Zev Haworth). When police are finally consulted, they discover Paul’s car still parked at a state park trailhead.
Nearly a month of subsequent search parties and investigation fails to turn up any further signs of his whereabouts, forcing the authorities to abandon the case. All this is baffling and upsetting, particularly to Claire, a tightly wound type who — contrary to the film’s title — is blindsided into stasis by the enigma of Paul’s absence. If he’d fallen down a forest crevasse, he might well never be found, a possibility heightened by torrential rains that occurred after his departure. She can’t accept that he might have simply run off, though videotape of stray domestic moments she re-watches suggest marital tensions she may have been denying — and perhaps even instigated.
The notion that Paul could have hidden other needs and activities from her arises when she discovers he was collaborating on a sculpture project with Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), an art school grad student as pushily “open” in her grieving emotions as Claire is defensively closed-off. To the latter’s exasperation, grade schooler Connor — who, like mom, appears to be turning into the kind of person for whom social interactions are mostly a matter of pained tolerance — responds eagerly to the same friendship overtures from Allison that Claire finds invasive and suspicious.
Suddenly unmoored from a routine that provided stability if not necessarily happiness, Claire flounders, acting out in ways that are “unlike her,” yet may also be somewhat freeing. Brandt impressively limns a character whose intelligence and complexity are always evident, along with a sometimes dislikable brittleness. Despite little in the way of backstory, she nonetheless springs to life whole as a type of person frequently met off-screen but seldom granted central focus in movies, as Claire’s very personality resists the dramatic.
Reflecting her internalized nature — as well as the different kind of “nature” Paul seemingly vanished into — “Claire in Motion” has a low-key yet lyrical texture, highlighted by Andreas Burgess’ impressionistic widescreen lensing and Xander Duell’s sparingly used score. The style is flexible enough to successfully work in both an incongruous nightclub sequence and a brief stretch in which the film assumes Connor’s point of view. Those who seek neat narrative resolution to any mystery may leave underwhelmed. Still, the hard-won acceptance of uncertainty that Robinson and Howell allow their protagonist provides its own, more abstract satisfaction.