Back from a tour of duty, Kelli can't wait to rejoin her old life in the rust belt town she's always lived in. She's ready to experience the old feelings of everyday life- the carpet under her bare feet, a cold beer in front of the television, the smell of her baby's head. Slowly, though, she realizes that her everyday life doesn't resemble the one she left. Struggling to find her place in her family and the rust-belt town she no longer recognizes, what can she reclaim of her share of the way of life she's been fighting to protect? Written by
Writer/director Liza Johnson's feature debut Return is a welcome entry into the recent string of strong female voices making their name in American independent cinema. Starring Linda Cardellini as a soldier returning home, Johnson interestingly constructs a study into what it's like for a woman coming back from war, something that we haven't seen in film very often. Johnson uses an unconventional narrative here, not focusing on any kind of straight rhythm but rather creating the story almost as a series of interactions between Cardellini's Kelli and those around her.
Michael Shannon plays against type as Mike, the husband who raised their two children on his own while she was gone, and John Slattery demonstrates some impressive skill outside of Mad Men as a veteran that Kelli meets at her AA meeting. Johnson tells this woman's struggle in a boldly authentic fashion, stripping away the dramatics or the A-to-B character arc you would typically see in this kind of film. Instead she focuses directly on Kelli's struggle to cope with returning back to this place of normalcy after what she's been through. There are no scenes of her falling apart into melodramatics or listing the gory details of her experience, but Cardellini plays this character with all of that tragedy inside of her. You can feel her experience in her face and the way she holds herself.
Johnson is aware that these kind of people often don't let that pain out and wisely she keeps it bottled up inside of Kelli, and was thankful enough to get an actress as skilled as Cardellini here to capture her unique vision. The unconventional structure does lead to some parts that drag and I wish that the relationship between Kelli and Mike had been more developed, but I think Return shows us two major things. One, that Liza Johnson is a female voice in film who has loads of potential; and two, that Linda Cardellini deserves much stronger roles because she can deliver when given the opportunity.
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