Professor’s film debut releases to Cannes and Sundance acclaim

The very first shot of Return is certainly disconcerting: It follows the back of Linda Cardellini’s head as  the camera zooms uncomfortably close to Kelli, her character, as she walks through the airport on her way back from a tour of duty in the Middle East. After what we understand to be a number of years of service, Kelli has left the warzone and her unit in the National Guard to return to her quiet hometown in Ohio, back into the arms of her husband and two daughters. Yet she soon finds it impossible to jump back into her old life; those closest to her have moved on in a number of ways, and she feels increasingly disconnected from her surroundings. The strength of this film is drawn from the discreet, suggestive handling of Kelli’s emotions. She never speaks out to tell her friends and family – or the viewer – of her struggle; instead, this malaise is implied by the artful filming, which draws us into an introspective exploration of a complex individual.

Some students at the College will be surprised to learn that Return is unexpectedly close to home: The writer and director is our very own Liza Johnson, professor of art and chair of American studies. Previously, Johnson has written and directed an array of shorts and documentaries, but with this feature-length film she is addressing a vast, mainstream audience for the very first time. “This is the most mass-cultural thing I’ve ever done,” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t think I can hide this one from my mom.” I would have thought that this stage of the film’s life, during which it is subject to the judgment and criticism of anyone who might get their hands on it, would be the most stressful, but Johnson insisted on the opposite: “I’ve had a nice time in the recent weeks, and I’m starting to understand why they use the term ‘release.’ We finished the film in May, but I’ve worked on it every single day since then.” Now it’s out of her hands, and she has “no choice about how people will think about it,” she said.

Her big-screen debut has already received some significant accolades: In 2008, she was selected to display her preliminary work on the film in a workshop at the Sundance Film Festival. She did encounter difficulty afterwards, as she next began to “develop the cast and financing, which happened to be at the height of the financial crisis,” Johnson explained. Last year the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight and received a number of positive reviews. “That was a very big spotlight, a very good way to bring the film to the public,” Johnson said.

The glitz and glamour of the French Riviera’s main event of the summer also left an impression: “It was very fancy; Linda went with me and was in hair and make-up then for more time than she was for the whole movie. As an intellectual I’m supposed to be critical of all of this, but I thought it was very fun,” Johnson admitted, adding that “the most feedback came when we released it, and it was very exciting and welcome to me that people understand and appreciate it.”

Clearly taken by Johnson’s success and prominence in the art field, I was eager to hear what she had to say about her unique position as a professor at the College who has written and directed a film. But she quickly put her work in perspective, explaining that all members of the faculty here have their respective successes, even if they are not as visible or visual as a film. “It might not be as visible as the rest of the faculty, but it’s the same for the rest of us,” she said. “I imagine that I speak for all of us when I say that our professional development feeds back into our ability to teach you stuff.  It keeps me excited, reminds me that there is something to learn. We all have two jobs. If you’re in another field, sometimes the audience is just more specialized.”

Johnson’s careful dissection of a soldier’s psyche has touched audiences outside of the U.S. as well; after the attention it got at Cannes, it was sold in a number of countries currently at war, and the film is opening in the United Kingdom in two weeks. Even if it is only the most visible example of it in recent times, Return constitutes a reminder to all students here of the vitality of our academic community as a whole.