Still wearing desert camo, Kelli (Linda Cardellini) comes back from a tour of duty in an unspecified country to the husband (Michael Shannon), the two young daughters, and the suburban house in a small Ohio town that she left behind a year ago. Deployed with the National Guard to work in the not-conspicuously-heroic field of resupply, Kelli has a tendency to shrug off questions about her frontline experience; when friends and family ask her, as they inevitably do, what it was like over there, her standard response is, “A lot of people had it a lot worse.”
Be that as it may, Kelli’s old life doesn’t quite fit anymore. “Everything seems smaller,” Kelli tells her co-worker at the dull warehouse job that has been kept open for her. “The cups are where the fuckin’ plates should go; it’s weird,” is how she explains her domestic disorientation to a girlfriend after a night out drinking. (This is shortly after an inexplicable fit of claustrophobia has inspired Kelli to wriggle her way out of a bar’s bathroom window.) Only these surface cracks show at first, but with a little additional pressure, her life will soon shatter.
After hitting her nadir, Kelli is court-ordered to an AA meeting where she meets a veteran of an unidentified past American adventure. Bud (Mad Men‘s John Slattery, in a piquant supporting bit) is curious about what it’s like to come home in such touchy-feely times, with “all these Oprah assholes up your ass.” Indeed, everyone seems overeager to receive a breakthrough confessional from Kelli. But Return is not interested in catharsis in the pop-psych, flip-a-switch form.
Writer-director Liza Johnson is concerned instead with the impact of protracted dislocation on a particular family, a dislocation attributable to a protracted foreign war—that is, the micro within the macro. The avoidance of stereotypes, beginning with the unusual female perspective, keeps Return away from the most tired sort of PTSD histrionics, but running away from one model leads Johnson’s film right into the clichés of low-key indie naturalism.
Cardellini (whom you know from ER and Freaks and Geeks) can be excellent when she has someone to play off of, but too often, her performance of anomie is “restrained” to the point where nothing remains of it but a tight, uneasy frown, set to one of those tuning-an-acoustic-guitar soundtracks. Often, it’s difficult to separate Kelli’s realistic readjustment blues from the filmmaker’s own evident distaste for middle-American entertainment (Funniest Home Videos on TV, cheerleading practice, etc.). Firmly in the unassuming indie vein, Return treads lightly and leaves little imprint.