Too heavy-handed and clumsy to land with a real knockout punch, Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson’s second feature benefits immensely from the quietly moving work of its lead, Besty Brandt. The former “Breaking Bad” star is the eponymous Claire of Howell and Robinson’s “Claire in Motion,” a film about the messier aspects of grief and loss that shines only when it pulls back from its worrying tendency to hit themes so firmly on the head its a wonder they don’t start bleeding.
“Be careful,” Claire whispers to her husband Paul (Chris Beetem) as he slips out of their home to partake in his apparent favorite past time — a solo survivalist hiking trip into the woods, during which he’ll tote the bare minimum of supplies and only eat what he can find and hunt — an understandable sentiment made all the more crucial by her mention of Paul’s previous dizzy spells. But Paul seems unconcerned, telling his wife, “you know me!” before heading off on his ill-fated excursion. Of course, that proves to be the crux of the film, that Claire really doesn’t know Paul, a tossed-off line that rings throughout the slim drama.
When Paul doesn’t return as planned, Claire and their young son Connor (Zev Haworth, giving a refreshingly unaffected kid performance) slip from annoyance to genuine worry. A police investigation is launched and turns up little, and the pair are left with far more questions than answers. The always-analytic Claire — she and Paul are both professors at a small college, and her bent towards reason is explained away by numerous scenes of her crouching over numbers and murmuring about calculations — struggles to reconcile the life she thought she knew with the strange new details about her husband that keep popping up along the way.
While other films with similar storylines would likely lean towards more outrageous revelations, Howell and Robinson scale back, instead opting to hone in on questions of identity, possession and the ability to really “know” someone through more gentle surprises. Claire soon discovers that Paul was tapping into more creative pursuits, including an art project with an alluring art professor (Anna Margaret Hollyman, the star of Robinson and Howell’s first feature, “Small, Beautifully Moving Parts”) and a previously unmentioned skydiving exhibition. Dabbling in survivalism is certainly out of the box enough, but “Claire in Motion” steadily exposes still more about Paul to a mostly baffled Claire.
Paul, it seems, was looking for something different in his life, and when it’s revealed that he and Claire share a surname almost too silly to believe — Hunger, because they’re the Hungers, get it? — the screenplay’s emphasis on making its ideas still more plain begins to wear. Brandt’s work in the film is strong enough that she can easily carry the more low-key aspects of the story through the sheer force of her own performance, but Howell and Robinson don’t always trust that it’s enough. Brandt is more than enough.
The film picks up some serious steam with the introduction of Hollyman’s Allison, who serves as a clever foil for the mostly uptight Claire, forcing her to engage with the kind of artistic pursuits that continue to drive a wedge between her and her still-gone husband. Howell and Robinson’s screenplay gracefully subverts expectations when it comes to Allison, whose presence in the film — and Paul’s life — could easily fall into more salacious territory.
And yet, while Paul and Allison’s relationship was (mostly) a creative and professional one, Hollyman’s character does blossom into a different kind of “other woman” archetype. Just as Claire is wrestling with both the logistics of her new, Paul-free existence and the discovery that she wasn’t privy to great patches of his life, Allison keeps popping up, peppering Claire with more information she’s not ready to hear.
“I’m just…trying to be open to everything,” Allison tells Claire of her own experiences since Paul went missing, while an alternately enraged and mystified Claire shoots back, “Well, I’m just trying to survive.” By the film’s end, that’s precisely what Claire has accomplished through Brandt’s tenacity and grace — survival, and on her own terms.
“Claire in Motion” hits limited release and VOD on Friday, January 13.