Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reverend's Interview: Liza with an L

I'm not aware of any other out lesbian writer-directors who have gotten to cross over from the visual arts and short films by making a non-LGBT feature starring such acclaimed actors as Linda Cardellini (Brokeback Mountain), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, the upcoming Superman: Man of Steel) and John Slattery (Mad Men), but Liza Johnson has done so with absorbing results. Her very good military-domestic drama Return opens this Friday in Los Angeles and New York. It will also be available on VOD and iTunes beginning February 28th.

Cardellini plays Kelli, a wife and mother of two young daughters who returns home to smalltown Ohio as the film opens following a year-long stint serving in the National Guard during an unspecified war. It isn't long before Kelli's transition back to civilian life proves less than idyllic. Those who only know Cardellini as Velma in last decade's Scooby Doo franchise will be especially impressed by her performance here and Shannon, as her conflicted husband, is excellent as usual.


Johnson, whose "day job" is as Professor of Art at Williams College, is to be commended for her matter-of-fact approach to this story of a soldier's re-entry as well as for a refreshing lack of histrionics when the process doesn't go as well as expected. She recently spoke with Reverend about her experience making Return, which made its world premiere at no less than the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

"It isn't a gay movie," Johnson said, "but maybe there's a way it could be called a queer movie in that (Kelli) doesn't quite fit in and learns to live outside a traditional family." The filmmaker has been partnered for seven years and now calls Brooklyn home after her own upbringing in "Rust Belt" Ohio. "Sometimes, I am attracted to stories of people who choose to live outside the norm." Her crew on Return included Production Designer Inbal Weinberg, who worked on last year's Pariah, and Editor Affonso Goncalves, a veteran of such LGBT-interest projects as The Delta and Todd Haynes' Mildred Pierce.

Johnson interviewed numerous women and friends who had recently returned from military service in Iraq, but she couldn't immediately recall whether she had spoken with any LGBT servicemen/women. "I believe that I did," she stated, and she shared one experience in particular. "I visited a friend of mine at Quantico, and I spoke with one woman there who isn't gay and is married but she checked me into the hotel there for significant others of military personnel. They couldn't or didn't ask our relationship (prior to the repeal of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy), which is interesting." All in all, Johnson says she "had a great experience as an openly gay filmmaker working with military personnel."


Of working with her lead actors, Johnson reflected: "It was great. I worked with Linda for a longer time and did research with her; she took it really seriously and is very hardcore." Shannon, who will next be seen on the big screen as the villainous General Zod, was the first to be cast in Return by Johnson. "He is also very hardcore and committed to his work," she raved. "(Shannon and Cardellini) are both such powerful performers, the whole crew and film benefited from their seriousness."

Other movies in recent years have explored the experience of soldiers' return home from recent overseas conflicts, notably the lesbian-themed A Marine Story as well as Brothers and Stop-Loss. Return raises what could be a hitherto unasked question: what happens when what has long been considered home no longer serves its traditionally comforting purpose? In Johnson's assured hands (she actually has a PhD in coming-home-from-war narratives), the answer proves both enlightening and heartbreaking.

Reverend's Rating: B+

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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