Claire Hunger (Betsy Brandt), a Maths professor, finds her organised life unraveling when her husband Paul (Chris Beetem), an ornithology lecturer, doesn’t return from a three-day solo wilderness survival trip. Extensive searches of the mountain forest area turn up his neatly-parked car, but no trace of him – and, as time wears on, Claire and her young son Connor (Zev Haworth) – who continue to put up missing persons posters and revisit the forest well after organised search parties have been abandoned – are torn between hoping that Paul has simply contrived to disappear and being furious with him if that’s been his plan all along. Claire also discovers that Paul has kept from her the fact that he’s been working on a bundle-of-twigs sculpture in a commune-like space (complete with ‘ukulele pod’) with arts grad student Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), who is an oddly disturbing presence but not an obvious ‘other woman’.
There are hints that Paul was perhaps suffering a mystery ailment beyond mid-life crisis, sketches and a sky-diving video which suggest an avian obsession with flight or falling, and even the barest hints of supernatural Hanging Rock circumstances …but the point of the film, co-written and directed by Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson, isn’t the obvious mystery of What Happened With Paul but the crises Claire is left to cope with as the world (and especially Allison) contrive to make her question the extent of her own culpability even while it’s still just possible Paul just fell into a deep crevice and had every intention of coming home to wife and son.
There’s a slightly too pat suggestion that Claire’s maths mind makes her unsympathetic to Paul’s troubles, while his bird instincts prompt him to fly off – but Brandt, shouldering the whole film, makes Claire a much more complicated character. Audiences will be divided about Claire – who might be entirely admirable or a complete shrew – and the absent Paul, and there’s a remarkable bit of character development by inference in the way Connor (who has a craze for knitting) takes elements from adults around him, including his father’s slyness and his mother’s method, and experiments with the slightly cult-like artiness embodied by Allison, who has a witchy presence in Claire’s mind but is also being honest and helpful by her own lights, loyal to the man she knows and wary of the woman she only knows through what he told her.
It’s slightly a caricature of American indie filmmaking – even soul-shattering arguments are soft-spoken here, the look is misty-gloomy, and odd quirks – a best friend (Sakina Jaffrey) seems to be working on a performance art piece that involves imitating cat videos) are more unnerving than comic. The only openly funny element is Claire’s clown-car-driving drunken suitor Stu (Brian Evans), who is at least honestly tactless rather than thoughtfully cruel. From early on, it’s plain that Paul’s fate is likely to remain ambiguous – we get a sinister cairn near the end, but he remains Schroedinger’s Husband to the end – so the creatives can work on Claire, whose journey doesn’t involve abandoning her young son. For some zeitgeisty reason, grief is the motor of a whole lot of ‘serious’ movies at the moment – Claire in Motion is a minor-key entry in the cycle, but well worth a look for Brandt alone.