In the new film "Return," Linda Cardellini plays Kelli, a National Guard soldier just returned to her small hometown from deployment overseas. As she struggles to fit into the routines her husband and two young daughters have established during her absence, she soon falls into a tailspin, bonding with a Vietnam vet she meets in an alcohol education program, then being called back to active duty.
The first feature from writer-director Liza Johnson, "Return" isn't a documentary, but it was inspired by real-life events. "One of the things that motivated the story for me was having a conversation with a friend who had come back from his military deployment and he was talking about his efforts to stay married when he got back," Johnson said by phone from her Brooklyn home.
"And I feel like we live in a world where military culture and civilian culture are very separate," she added. "For me it really stood out just to hear him talk about this very simple but intense problem in his everyday life that he couldn't say for sure whether it was or was not totally linked to his combat experience."
"Return," which opened in Los Angeles on Friday and is available on video-on-demand platforms starting Feb. 28 through Focus Features' digital distribution division Focus World, marks a logical next step in Johnson's career. Her previous short films have been shown at museums and galleries in addition to film festivals, and in her more recent work she's placed nonprofessional actors into documentary settings to create documentary-fiction hybrids.
As Johnson became interested in exploring longer narratives, she realized she would need to work with professional actors, she said — Michael Shannon plays Kelli's husband; "Mad Men's" John Slattery, the veteran with whom she develops a connection. The filmmaker, who teaches art at Williams College in Massachusetts, wasn't necessarily familiar with Cardellini's television work on the short-lived but much-beloved "Freaks And Geeks" or even her longer run on "ER."
Rather, Johnson was drawn to Cardellini for her roles in "Brokeback Mountain" and, more surprisingly, as Velma, the brainy young detective in "Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed." (Specifically the sequel, both Johnson and Cardellini noted with amusement — Johnson thought the actress brought an unlikely dignity and intelligence to the franchise sequel.)
It was the naturalism of Johnson's script that hooked Cardellini.
"Reading the script I was waiting for her to talk about what her trauma was," Cardellini said of her character in a separate interview. "I think in real life most of us don't know how to communicate our deepest feelings very well. And that makes her seem so real to me, there were things she just couldn't communicate. It's a fictional character, and she's being written, but she wasn't overly written. It wasn't somebody who understands herself better than they actually would in real life."
Johnson purposefully left a few major details undefined, namely whether Kelli served in Iraq or Afghanistan. That particular enigma served multiple purposes.
"It came to seem useful to let the exact place of her deployment stay open," Johnson said. "We receive the movie at a certain moment when it comes out, and when we started working on the movie everyone was more interested in Iraq than Afghanistan, and now I think we are much more interested in Afghanistan than Iraq. I guess just the reality people are living in when they see the movie is shifting — we thought it may be useful to let it be elusive in the film."
Johnson initially wrote the script during 2008, but the film did not actually go into production until fall 2010. The period before shooting could begin allowed Johnson and Cardellini to continue meeting and interviewing soldiers as well as develop their own relationship.
"It was the most I've ever trusted a director," Cardellini said.
Though "Return" is about a deeply American subject, it mostly has been seen at international film festivals since it premiered last year in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at Cannes. Johnson hopes U.S. audiences will perceive her film as both an intimate character study and a powerful reminder of the unsung sacrifices big and small being made every day all across the country.
"Return" looks beyond policy to hit on the deeply personal cost of war.
"I feel like normally the way we talk about politics is very argumentative, like on 'Crossfire' — 'Oh, the war is good' or 'Oh, the war is bad,'" Johnson said. "I wanted to suspend that question, even though it's an important question.... What I hope for the movie is that it does something the expression of an opinion can't do, which is to ask you to feel certain ideas in a different register."