Return (2011): Melodrama Directed by Liza Johnson (Only Woman in Cannes Fest Directors Fortnight)

“Return,” the feature directing debut of Liza Johnson, the only woman director to be represented in the prestigious series Directors’ Fortnight at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, is a modest indie, centering on the adjustment problems of a wife and a mother after returning home from fighting in Iraq.

Intimate in scale and characters, and occasionally poignant, “Return” is an almost genre film in its thematic concern, except that this time around the protagonist is a working class woman, who lives in a small-town in Ohio.

Upon return from tour of duty, Kelli (Linda Cardellini) is happily greeted by her husband Mike (the always reliable Michael Shannon), who’s a plumber, and her two daughters.  Quiet and keeping to herself, Kelli goes back to work at the same warehouse she used to work.

The low-key narrative observes her everyday life routines, including socializing and drinking with her old girlfriends.  Judging by their uneventful interactions, it’s hard to see what the women had shared in common before the war.

We keep waiting for some revelations (or just expository scenes) of what exactly happened  to Kelli when she was a member of the National Reservists, but, for some mysterious reasons, as writer and director Johnson is reluctant to expose them.

Adding to these vague notions of malaise and maladjustment in post-War life is the fact that we never find out the exact location of Kelli’s service.

We witness manifestations of new forms of speech and behavior.  Kelli now curses in front of her children, listens to loud music, restless in front of the TV.

Two “events” in the second part of the tale add some energy and narrative momentum: Kelli’s sudden quitting of her job, and her discovery of her husband’s affair while she was gone.  (It’s never clear, though, how happy the couple was before Kelli left for service).

We get the feeling of a woman who’s struggling to find her place in her family and the rust-belt town she no longer recognizes.  But the text could have used more characters, and even those that exist, especially Kelli’s daughters, are underdeveloped.  As it is, Kelli is the film’s only fully-fleshed individual, which puts pressure on the beautiful actress who embodies her.

With all due respect to the film’s modest ambitions restrained approach, and refusal to employ cliches of the genre, “Return” gives the impression of a first, undernourished, almost unfinished film.

Liza Johnson seems pleased with recording and presenting its heroine’s mundane life without ever digging deep enough into her personality or really illuminating her dilemmas.