I've followed Linda Cardellini's career ever since the wildly entertaining days of "Freaks & Geeks" (a great show that never had the audience it deserved, but everyone loves in hindsight). She has matured in interesting ways as an actress, and brings a surprising gravitas and a world weary appeal to the indie drama "Return." In many ways, it is Cardellini that is the primary selling point of Liza Johnson's introspective look at a soldier's homecoming. "Return" is not the first film to delve into this subject, nor will it be the last. It does, however, have a unexpected matter-of-factness that serves the piece well. The screenplay isn't populated by big dramatic moments. Instead, it is filled with quietness, regrets, things left unsaid, disappointments. Cardellini brings a tremendous amount of depth to this believable role without ever resorting to grandstanding. Every emotion is simply etched across her weathered face.
Cardellini plays a wife and mother returning to her small town existence after a deployment overseas. The film never tells you much about her experiences (she was more support personnel than involved in action), but it is clear that she is having trouble settling back into her old ways. At first, there is a simple bliss but things start to erode as she becomes more and more disconnected. This puts a strain on her relationship with her husband (the always welcome Michael Shannon), her co-workers, and her former friends. She simply feels like she no longer fits, and most of the film deals with this struggle.
"Return" is an intimate picture that gets the audience up close and personal. You may not always like or understand Cardellini, but what was fascinating (to me) was that I think she felt the same way about herself. It's not a movie with a big plot or a dramatic character arc. For that reason, some may find it slow or too open-ended. It is simply a slice-of-life glimpse at an all-too-common phenomenon, and it seems both timely and relevant for that reason. As an added bonus, Mad Men's John Slattery has a small, but great, role. But mostly, this is Cardellini''s show. She expresses a lot without saying a lot. If this is any indication, I hope to see her expand into bigger projects (and not of the Scooby-Doo variety, hopefully those days are behind her). "Return" may not, in the end, be for everyone--but it's a solid little film for a patient adult audience. KGHarris, 4/12.