"Claire in Motion" begins with a husband kissing his wife goodbye as he prepares to leave for a solo camping trip. "Be careful," she tells him, half-asleep. "You know me," he says. She doesn't, and the surprising depth of her not knowing turns out to be the key to this somber and quietly affecting psychological mystery, written and directed by the independent filmmakers Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson.
When Paul Hunger (Chris Beetem) doesn't return home after a few days, Claire (Betsy Brandt) notifies the police, who undertake a massive manhunt in the Ohio woods where he is believed to have disappeared. No trace of him is found, but when the search is called off after about three weeks, Claire keeps papering the town with missing-person fliers, clinging to the hope that he might turn up alive. Her young son, Connor (Zev Haworth), meanwhile, becomes increasingly withdrawn. He understands, more intuitively than his mother does, that Dad isn't coming home.
When exactly did Paul go missing? That question haunts "Claire in Motion," and a partial answer emerges in the form of Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a friendly, attractive grad student with a manner just a shade too intense and insistent to be mistaken for pleasant. Allison was collaborating with Paul on an art project before his disappearance, and while she's quick (maybe too quick) to insist that they were just good friends, she clearly relishes her familiarity with a soulful, creative side of Paul that Claire never knew.
It's perhaps worth noting here that Claire works as a math professor, while her husband was an ornithologist. The juxtaposition and contrast of science and art may seem an overly tidy metaphor for the forces that may have driven Paul to flee his own life — steadiness and rationalism suddenly giving way to pure instinct and emotion. But for the most part, nothing about "Claire in Motion" seems overly calculated. It knows precisely where it's going, but it's also wise enough to leave that destination open-ended.
Television viewers will remember Brandt from "Breaking Bad," in which she played the memorable character of Marie Schrader — who, as the wife of a DEA agent, found herself under a very different kind of marital strain. Marie had a twitchy, volatile streak that led her to act out in unexpected ways, but her frequent exasperation with her husband was more than counterbalanced by her fierce sense of loyalty and protectiveness toward him.
Brandt is front and center for nearly all 83 minutes of "Claire in Motion," and she gives a different but similarly nuanced reading of a woman who, in her own words, is "just trying to survive." As she gets to the heart of a mystery that will be resolved not with clear answers but with a poignant sense of emotional closure, Claire often comes close to snapping but never does. She agonizes and recoils, but she also remains fundamentally open-minded, even when listening to Allison jaw on about her platonic yet intimate position in Paul's life.
Howell and Robinson, who previously collaborated on the 2011 road movie "Small, Beautifully Moving Parts" (in which Hollyman played the lead), emphasize the "motion" in the title. A few interstitial passages take place at a local roller-skating rink, and the directors like to film their protagonist walking down the street or driving past verdant scenery, often to the sad, dreamy synth accompaniment of Xander Duell's score. In these sad but precious unresolved moments, it's never entirely clear whether Claire is stuck in a circular groove or beginning the long, difficult process of moving on.
'Claire in Motion'
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills