February 20, 2006
Films about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to be hard sell with American audiences. Perhaps it is because we are still living through them, still experiencing loved ones coming home from the Middle East maimed, scarred or dead. Nobody wants to be reminded of the futility of these endeavors despite some very good films that have either dealt with what soldiers go through over there (The Hurt Locker) or what happens to them and their families when t hey come home (Brothers). Return (2011) is an independent film that falls in the latter category and stars Linda Cardellini, a talented actress best known for her roles on television shows like Freaks and Geeks and ER, and films like Scooby-Doo (2002).
She plays Kelli, an American reservist that has recently returned from a tour of duty. We meet her as she is joyfully reunited with her husband Mike (Shannon) and their two daughters at the airport. She hangs out with family and friends acclimatizing herself to being back home. Everything seems fine as she goes about daily activities, like going shopping, seeing her daughter’s cheerleading practice and working at her factory job. In these scenes, director Liza Johnson does a nice job of capturing small-town life, like how Kelli’s girlfriends gossip about their neighbors or how little kids play with each other. Her matter-of-fact direction adds to the authenticity of these scenes.
It soon becomes apparent that Mike and Kelli’s girlfriends are walking on eggshells around her. They appear to interact with her like always but every so often one of them cautiously asks Kelli about her tour of duty over there or how she’s holding up. Gradually, the cracks in her well-being start to show, like how she sleeps with her kids and not her husband or how she abruptly quits her job in the middle of a shift. Kelli becomes increasingly distant from her husband and her friends. After the things she saw and experienced over there, the humdrum routine of life back home must seem oddly inconsequential. Kelli struggles to find a purpose in life.
Linda Cardellini delivers a solid performance devoid of vanity, playing a flawed character. Throughout Return she appears to wear little to no makeup, which only adds to the authenticity of what Kelli is going through. Johnson doesn’t draw attention to this and Cardellini doesn’t play it up and this results in a wonderfully earthy performance. At times, she delivers heartbreaking moments, like the scene where Kelli finds out she’s going back into service and we see her shattered emotions play over Cardellini’s face.
Return is a nicely understated and moving character-driven film about something that you won’t see on the news – how the wars in the Middle East affect those who serve in our armed forces and how it affects them when they come back home. There are the obvious signs of damage with physical wounds that you can see, but it is the ones you can’t – the stress and mental trauma – that make it difficult for some soldiers to reintegrate back into their home lives. This is Johnson’s feature film debut and it is a strong one where she refuses to judge her characters, instead presenting them warts and all with a refreshing honesty that makes it compelling to watch.
Return can currently be seen on VOD and will be released soon on DVD.