The second feature written and directed by Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell (“Small, Beautifully Moving Parts”),”Claire in Motion” has an appealing stillness and intensity. It works as both a quiet, meditative study of grief and a muted examination of identity, but not as a compelling mystery.
We first meet the low-key academic Claire (Betsy Brandt, “Breaking Bad”) in the lowest key of positions — lying down, half asleep. She rouses somewhat to bid her husband Paul (Chris Beetem, “Inside Amy Schumer”), a fellow professor at a small Ohio college, goodbye as he heads out on a solo backpacking trip. He’s an ornithology expert and frequent sojourner into the woods.
She makes an oblique mention of his past dizzy spells, having dreamed they had returned. The audience immediately senses danger. It’s not at all clear if Claire had such misgivings. She seems muted, her emotions tamped down. But those soon bubble up subtly, specifically her insecurity, doubt and confusion.
It turns out that Claire’s casual obliviousness to her husband may be a critical point in his subsequent disappearance. After that morning, Claire does not see or hear from Paul again. He seems to have simply vanished. Did he have an accident and fall in the forest? Is he lying wounded somewhere, or did he not survive his woodsy trek?
Then matters get more interesting. Fine-arts grad student Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman, “White Reindeer”) surfaces, insinuating herself into Claire’s life. She knew Paul, perhaps in the Biblical sense. He was a faculty advisor of sorts, on an avian art project, and their conversations grew intimate. Did Paul have a secret life, a deeper emotional connection with the intense, loquacious Allison? How much does she know?
Claire bridles at Allison’s discomfiting intrusions into her life. Allison doesn’t seem to understand boundaries, and Claire is all about barriers and personal space. Not only are the two women vying for supremacy in the departed Paul’s life, they seem to be competing for the attentions of the couple’s young son Connor (Zev Haworth).
Symbolism is everywhere: Claire is a math teacher — code for dull, sensible and unimpassioned. Has Paul’s fascination with birds and flight led him to fly off on his own winged migration? The couple’s last name, Hunger, carries its own set of meanings. Did Paul hunger for more of a human connection than his wife offered? Is she hungering for clues? Are they hungry for a passion that has faded, or eluded them altogether?
One thing we know for sure is that Claire demands more of a police investigation into her husband’s disappearance. They appear to search for him half-heartedly, following an errant clue or two before giving up. And this is in a seemingly quiet Ohio college town. You’d think a missing-persons case of a popular local professor with an attractive wife and cute young son would get at least one of the local detectives fired up to dig a bit deeper, but everyone seems surprisingly disinterested and disconnected. Wouldn’t Paul or Claire have chums and family concerned about his sudden disappearance? Sure, Claire is quiet and withdrawn, but that doesn’t explain the total lack of concerned friends, neighbors and colleagues.
To its credit, there are no obvious answers in “Claire in Motion,” and no clear-cut heroes or villains. Intentions are murky; no one is overtly malicious. But in its effort not to ascribe blame and to avoid over-simplifying, the film fails to fashion a fully credible sense of motivation. And while we get a vague sense of Claire, Paul is a cipher.
Just who was he? And why had the couple seemingly drifted apart? How long ago did he have those dizzy spells? And if he and Allison had such an emotional bond, why did he take off? It’s all too oblique. And because of that, we don’t care as much as we might. The viewer emerges from the experience mildly intrigued, vaguely dissatisfied and wanting more.
As coolly played by Brandt, Claire subtly communicates her emotional struggle in drips and drops. While it makes sense that she distractedly goes on with her life — the couple has a young son, after all — we keep waiting for emotions to overtake her. And, as we wait, our interest wanes. One of the liveliest performance is by Sakina Jaffrey (“House of Cards”) as Maya, Claire and Paul’s neighbor, and Claire’s apparent only friend. Even with her, Claire comes off stiff and remote.
Muted as it is, the film frustrates. Claire draws us in, but ultimately we don’t get to know her much better than when we first saw her drowsily lying in their marital bed. The story feels under-baked and only partially developed, the script capable, but underwritten. As a psychological portrait, key elements are lacking.
“Claire in Motion” is visually handsome, with its contrasting use of colors. Much of the world around Claire is drably-hued in greys, beiges, olive greens. Then dabs of vibrancy enliven the surroundings: the vividly green forest leaves, a brightly painted “clown car” driven by a man who flirts with Claire.
Exploring how well we know those closest to us has a wealth of narrative possibilities. Writer-directors Robinson and Howell know how to create an atmosphere of expectation; they succeed in outlining an elliptical and murky story and establishing a sense of vague unease. Perhaps their next film will give us more to go on.