Director Liza Johnson On Her Feature Debut, Return, Starring Linda Cardellini

02/15/2012 11:41 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012

Return, starring Linda Cardellini, is a haunting new movie that tweaks and twists the familiar of subject of a soldier's return from war. Kelli, played by Cardellini, is a young mother and National Guard reservist who's been swept up by the U.S.'s post-9/11 wars; when we meet her, she's just arrived back to her Ohio town after an 18-month overseas deployment. Her friends and family, including her plumber husband Mike (Michael Shannon), all seem eager to lend a supportive ear or maybe just to vicariously experience an exciting tale of horror or trauma; though she shrugs them all off by saying that others had it a whole lot worse, Kelli somehow can't make herself fit into her old world anymore, and soon her life and her family are falling apart. When a DUI forces her into rehab, she meets Bud (John Slattery), an older veteran who understands her better than most people ­can, but Kelli remains profoundly alone. Even though pieces of the puzzle remain missing and Kelli's not a big talker, we come to know this woman well, thanks to Cardellini's exceptional performance, set against the stark beauty of a late-summer rust belt setting.

Writer-director Liza Johnson makes her feature debut with Return. Like Kelli's friends and neighbors, Johnson knows the soldier's life only from the outside. "One of the things that made me want to do this story was talking to a friend of mine who's a Marine, who was telling me about his efforts to stay married after he got back from one of his deployments," she said. "I think if I had been in a military family, I would probably already know that story. I really noticed when I was working on this, actually, how separate military and civilian cultures are, at least right now."

To create the role of Kelli, Johnson and Cardellini met with men and women who had served overseas. "I didn't do a social-science type of research; what I did was just try to listen to people's anecdotes," Johnson says. "The women that I met were so different from each other that it gave me conviction that I needed to make a character that was just her own thing." She added, "If there would be a temptation to try to make her a typical female soldier, it would be immediately evident that that doesn't exist. Not that people don't have some things in common, or a collective experience, but the people that I met were very singular to themselves, and so I decided my character will also be very singular to herself, so there's no chance to make her typical. It showed me a broad range of things that would be plausible." Cardellini's intense, often silent performance completes the specificity of the character. Kelli comes across as a real person, not as a symbol.

Return was selected for Director's Fortnight at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, the only American film to be so honored in 2011. "It was very surprising because it was really right after we completed the film," Johnson says. "It was really, really helpful for the film because it put a really big spotlight on a pretty little film. I just had a really good experience there. People take their work there really seriously. The level of engagement of journalists and everyone was really intense and made us feel like our work was really respected." But of course, the glamorous seaside event was a long way from the grim world of Return. "I vaguely feel that I'm supposed to have a critique of the glamour and the celebrity, but actually I don't. I just liked it," Johnson says. And attending Cannes with Cardellini gave the director a glimpse of movie-star life that wasn't on her set: "Linda had to be in hair and makeup more for that festival than she did for our entire film!"

Return is showing in New York and Los Angeles.