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Claire (Betsy Brandt) is a college math professor who lives her life by the formulas of her daily routines and habits, more a part of the rigidity of logic than personal devotion, closing her eyes to the world it seems going on without her. She seems oblivious to the nuance of it all, hearing but not listening, living but not experiencing as she teaches her classes, raises her son Connor (Zev Haworth), pays the bills, and loves her husband Paul (Chris Beetem), all from the outside looking perfunctory. In an age when multi-tasking and numbing routines are part of all our modern lives, it feels very familiar.
Paul, who is an art professor, likes to be a survivalist in the woods, and one day when he doesn’t return, Claire is shaken from her ruts. Joining efforts to find him, she is convinced he is only lost, and yet as the weeks pass and investigators begin to shut down their search, she continues to believe he is somewhere just out of reach. As she combs through possible clues in his emails and videos, she discovers there are things about Paul she never knew, including a relationship with a student named Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), and it tears down the entire structure of what she thought was her reality.
Written and directed by Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson, Claire in Motion is a carefully conceived and crafted character study about a woman of expectations whose life is shuttered by the absence of a key factor in her structured equation. The peripheral unawareness of her daily existence makes her a dedicated mother and quality instructor but deadened to the semi-lucid messages that might be more clear otherwise. Claire puts her mathematical skills to use in piecing together Paul’s true life, undeterred in her belief that he is not dead, and Howell and Robinson don’t fall victim to the tropes, not having Claire become an emotional mess but instead having the spectrum of loss detailed in subtleties. From the way Brandt uses her eyes and the delicate choice to avoid dialogue adds a layer of tension and heartache that has surprising effect.
The story is an odyssey of sorts as Claire makes her way through the stages of grief, even as she learns that the project Paul and Allison were working on uncovers more than what it initially presents. This is about keeping hope while trying to move forward, a powerful metaphor at times about finding one’s way out of the woods, for Claire, one that seems constantly to be calling her back. Howell and Robinson do excellent work with their camera, staying true to the film’s title, keeping Claire always moving as she reaches and overcomes the hurdles in her way.
Where the film loses a bit of its footing along the path mostly consists with Allison, who perhaps by design, is rigorously cliché and so in comparison to others in the story becomes far less plausible. There are some good moments between Claire and Allison but ultimately, she feels unnecessary to the story, better driven by Claire’s descent, which itself lapses into a few moments of excess. Be that as it may, Brandt is exceptional, often harrowing as she delivers Claire from one frame to the next, rationally, even coldly returning to the woods for answers, learning and reworking her solutions that have effect on herself and her son.
Claire in Motion is not what it appears, and for fans thinking this will be a thriller with clear results, there might be some disappointment and yet, it should still pull viewers in with its compelling narrative and moody photography. This is an exploration of truths, a quest per se in understanding and overcoming terrible grief and as such, has much that will be left for us to decide.
Movie description: Claire in Motion is a 2017 drama about a woman who's husband disappears and the journey she takes in discovering what happened, something that is more transforming than she ever imagined.
Director(s): Annie J. Howell, Lisa Robinson
Actor(s): Betsy Brandt, Chris Beetem, Zev Haworth