Hey filmgoers: 2016 was quite a party right? It feels impossible to identify any one Year of the Blockbuster. Each of the past six years could justifiably lay claim to the title -- but 2016 is probably the strongest candidate we’ve had yet. With “Deadpool” in February, “Rogue One” in December, and what seemed like at least one blockbuster release in every month in-between, we were subjected to a veritable carpet-bombing campaign of CGI, explosions and Campbell-esque plot structure.
And you know what? I’m exhausted.
Watching “Claire in Motion,” screened at the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival and playing in theaters and video-on-demand Jan. 13, is not exhausting. It feels like taking a pause to breathe after an extended period of chaos. This psychological thriller starring Betsy Brandt of “Breaking Bad” fame is quiet when other movies would be loud, ambiguous when other movies would demand hard resolution, thoughtful when others would demand the sublimation of difficulty to move onto the next plot beat.
The film follows professor Claire (Brandt) in the weeks and months after her husband Paul (Chris Beetem) fails to return from an extended solitary camping trip. The first 10 minutes of the film expose us to his departure, his disappearance, and the brief but frantic search for his body in the forest. By the 11th minute, the meat of the movie begins as police have formally pulled out of the active search for Paul’s body, as have all citizen volunteers.
In fact, everyone in Claire’s life seems to accept Paul’s absence and move on -- including their son, Connor (Zev Haworth), who soon washes his hands of his mother’s after-school ritual posting “Missing” posters around town. Friends offer condolences that they hope “Paul’s OK somewhere,” but these platitudes quickly become a slap in the face. After all, his being OK would imply he voluntarily left Claire and Connor behind. Claire finds herself awake late every night, obsessively studying what’s implied to be the last video Paul shot, on her iPad. It’s a video of Claire, indifferent to her husband, batting away his questions about her well-being with a cold “eff off” stare. When she sleeps, she dreams of his hands on her body.
Claire is troubled further after she discovers her husband spent months secretly working on art projects in the company of an attractive young graduate student, Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman). Plagued by mysterious dizzy spells, Paul turned to art to explore his condition and how it could make him feel like he was flying or falling, depending on his perspective. As Claire further dissects Paul’s hidden life and their marriage, his art’s theme parallels her own question: Did her husband unwittingly fall in the wilderness? Or willingly fly away from home?
The film presents evidence for both outcomes, but Paul’s fate is ultimately beside the point.
What writer-directors Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson have achieved is to create a film that longs and suspects and mourns alongside its central character. Claire rarely says what she’s feeling at a given moment, and yet we always know implicitly from the actors’ performances, the editing of a scene, or the shots chosen.
When Claire meets Allison for the first time, we feel her paranoia as the camera scrutinizes Allison’s hand resting on her side, or the collar of her cable-knit sweater -- unassuming details that are dissected and eroticized under Claire’s wary gaze.
A preceding scene sees Claire similarly scour Allison’s portfolio website as research before meeting. This is scene is just a tad unintentionally funny, as we watch a character who is supposed to be an accomplished academic become intimidated by a perceived sexual rival who is, really, a caricature of self-serious Millennial dilettantism (Allison displays the job titles “performer - artist - blogger - inventor” under a photo of herself posing stoicly amidst piles of signage). It’s also a small work of genius, using the Millennial trend of (ugh) “personal branding” as a timely shorthand for the age-old trope of jealousy and fear toward youth.
Much of the movie’s effect is owed to the quality and subtlety of Brandt’s performance. In playing grief or devastation, she knows how to achieve with a twitch of an eye what other actors would need tears and screams to do.
Brandt’s acting career has mostly stuck to television thus far; hopefully this film marks her turn toward serious dramatic leading roles. She deserves it.