It's a question the movies ask again and again: How should a person grieve? In Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson’s slow-burn pseudo-mystery Claire in Motion, a talented mathematics professor named Claire Hunger (Betsy Brandt) realizes her amateur survivalist husband Paul (Chris Beetem) might not be coming home from his trip to an Ohio forest. Claire doesn’t shed a tear or lash out at her young son Connor (Zev Haworth). Her grief is internalized, managed and controlled, an emotional reflection of her life working with cold, complex numbers. Howell and Robinson go all-in on Claire’s measured mourning, and while it may be realistic, that detachment — along with a relentlessly clinical gray-tinged color palette — ultimately bogs down whatever momentum Claire in Motion might be working up to.
In the first frames, Paul’s kissing Claire goodbye as she’s asleep in bed. For three days, life carries on like normal in the small college town — faculty meetings, dinner with the kid, a walk around campus. When Paul doesn’t show up on the third night, Claire’s jaw sets tight. That’s all she’ll show of her worry. The next scene shows her speaking to the police, and we’re so deep in her POV that while she faces the cop's questions, the camera’s focused on the little details of his shirt and badge. Later, when she goes to meet Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), the new-agey grad student in the art department with whom Paul had been developing a secret friendship, Claire’s eyes wander in the same ways over Allison’s kitschy white, sleeveless sweater. The camera finds a tender-looking part of Allison’s inner arm as it touches the soft wool of the sweater, and we’re seeing this through Claire’s eyes as she tries to see through Paul’s eyes.
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After Allison suggests Paul may have just run away, unhappy with his life, Claire attempts to retrace her husband’s final days. She finds he was obsessed with flying and had even started a sculpture of a bird/human hybrid that remained unfinished when he left. But Howell and Robinson never let Claire linger on the clues, choosing instead to show her sleepwalking through life, her malaise punctuated only by a few tense moments with Allison, who seems to know far too much about Paul. But Claire seems to be telling the truth when she says says, “I’m not angry.” You may desperately want her to break from her mold, but the directors keep her trapped in her little cold prison of a body for far too long.
Claire in Motion suggests Zach Clark’s whimsical and dangerous meditation on grieving, White Reindeer, and not just because Hollyman played the uptight, jilted lover mourning an unfaithful partner in that film. Here, she portrays the other woman so deftly that I didn't recognize her at first, as her voice seems to have come up an octave to accommodate the free-spirited hippie character.
In White Reindeer, a rollicking drum-heavy score accompanied the lead character’s sorrow, and bright, saturated colors dominated the holiday atmosphere — tone and content contradicting one another beautifully. Here, everything is gray, and the music is as melancholy as Claire. It’s an admirable effort to get the audience sucked into her bland world, but that’s not where most people want to live for an hour and a half. Howell and Robinson do understand the necessity of marrying sad stories with contrary elements, as evidenced by their own Hollyman-starring picture from 2012, Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, which balances the scales of comedy and drama. But Claire in Motion would do well to run around in different directions, not just the one.