From the title to the subject matter, everything about Return, from writer-director Liza Johnson, at least superficially feels familiar. Freaks And Geeks’ Linda Cardellini stars as a National Guard soldier who comes back from overseas to her family in Ohio and has a difficult time readjusting. She’s excited about seeing her kids again, and her husband Michael Shannon, and she appreciates the small pleasures, such as the smell of freshly laundered towels. But after a tour of duty in which everything seemed bigger and more intense, the slow pace and piddling concerns of her small town drive her to distraction. She isn’t dealing with post-traumatic stress, per se; it’s the sense that once she was involved with something significant, while now she’s back to slapping useless shit together at a factory. Everything seems pointless and ordinary. The story has been told many times before: It’s about what happens when ordinary Joes or Janes live through an extraordinary experience that their loved ones can’t fully understand.
The big difference with Return is that this version of the story has Cardellini and Shannon, plus John Slattery as a fellow vet whom Cardellini meets in a court-mandated support group. Johnson strives for realism over melodrama—Return features few big plot moments or confrontational speeches—and she has the right cast for that kind of subtlety. The husband and wife don’t start out at odds; she playfully nibbles on his arm, he makes dry jokes about being an army wife, and they each try to get a sense of what the other went through during their separation. But gradually, Cardellini realizes that Shannon’s “whatever you had to do over there, I forgive you” attitude is cover for his own indiscretions. And other things aren’t quite right, either: The water is rusty in their bathroom sink, a neighborhood thief has smashed their car window, and so on. Even Slattery, who initially seems like a possible soulmate, has opinions and habits that Cardellini can’t support, lest she become someone she doesn’t really want to be. Return is unusually attuned to its protagonist’s alienation, which is especially painful because its source isn’t some horrendous event she witnessed, but the hundreds of annoying aspects of everyday life.