Everything Seems So Small
Home from war, Kelli (Linda Cardellini) is dislocated. She arrives in the airport at the start of Return, the camera following close on her back as she looks for something familiar. The frame remains tight on her face as she looks, so you’re as surprised as she is when her young daughter Jackie (Emma Rayne Lyle) approaches: as Kelli reacts abruptly, the camera jerks too, intimating the moment’s mix of happiness and weirdness.
An Ohio National Guard reservist, Kelli’s been gone for a year, you learn as she reunites with her husband Mike (Michael Shannon), as well as their other, even younger daughter. At the welcome back party, she drinks beer, listens to friends’ gossip, and learns that Mike was “such a rock star” as a dad and also, “great at Spouse Group.” As she gazes into her mirror image in the bathroom, she’s alone, actually, pulling her hair back and preparing for a shower, the first in some time, given her long route home. When she turns on the water and it’s brown, she’s definitely home.
Or not. Opening at the Village East Cinema on 10 February, and available on VOD beginning 28 February, Return reveals how nothing is quite how she remembers it, not the place, not her family, not even her. She’s surprised to see one daughter’s habit of scratching at her hand, as well as how much they’ve both grown. She’s no longer part of the routine at home, and she’s removed from her routine when she was deployed. She imagines she’ll adjust, as everyone expects of her, she tries not to think about what happened “over there.”
Liza Johnson’s movie rehearses the sorts of plot points that are familiar in many movies about returning veterans, from The Best Years of Our Lives to Dead Presidents to Gran Torino. Jackie’s effort to do the work on her own, as well as her lack of emotional support, makes her isolation acute, a point the film underscores by its consistently tight framing and limited movement. Just so, close-ups of Kelli’s face indicate her efforts to find solace in small moments, in braiding Jackie’s hair or watching TV with the family. These images also expose how she’s mystified by the implacable earnestness of her daughter’s cheerleading teacher, or Mike’s laughter at a funniest home video show, in which people fall down.
Since Mike was, as he complains, “Mr. Mom,” looking after the girls and his plumbing business too, they both feel she’s obligated to go back to work immediately at the ventilator factory where she’s been employed for 12 years. Here she’s increasingly restless, but still unable to talk about why: it may be like “falling off a bike,” as her coworker puts it, but she can’t help but see the place anew. “Everything seems so small,” she says. Indeed, this seems her primary way of remembering the war—the size of it, the scale. She insists, to anyone who asks, that “I didn’t have it as bad as some people.” Sure, she saw “some dead people and weird shit there, you know?,” she tells one friend, but “Mostly, I saw a giant amount of supplies. Have you ever seen a plane full of rubber gloves?”
Now back in a small world, a world both familiar and strange, Kelli does her best to return to the way things were. When she learns that Mike started seeing someone else while she was away, this fiction is broken open: the way things were is not, actually, the way they were. Her reactions are not surprising, even to her, but they bring consequences. An arrest for DUI leads to a lost license as well as a stint with a mandated support group for substance abusers. Here she’s put off by the group leader (Wayne Pyle), who urges her to “talk with us about what stuff sucks, to use your word.” Her disdain and distrust are shared by Bud (John Slattery), an older veteran in the same group, who suggests that his experience of abandonment by the nation he served is probably better than hers. “It must suck coming back with all these Oprah assholes up your ass,” he offers.
Of the several difficult questions raised by Return—what are the special problems faced by vets who are mothers, what are the problems of transitioning from daily crisis to incessant banality—this may be the most difficult. What are the best, most effective, most flexible ways to help veterans return? Trained for one life, they must come back to another, wholly other one. What’s the value of an experience that people at home can’t comprehend or don’t want to know about? It’s a problem of “giant amounts,” hard to fathom or to order. And its resolution can’t be reduced.