When a man vanishes in a Hollywood studio movie, the disappearance is usually the prelude to disclosing a hidden, violent life. But Claire in Motion is an indie domestic drama, so its revelations are less sensational. In fact, they're kind of bland.
Claire (Breaking Bad veteran Betsy Brandt) and Paul (Chris Beetem) are a faculty couple at Ohio University. Their shared surname is Hunger, but Paul is the only one who's been experiencing it.
Claire teaches math, which is apparently shorthand for being impassive. Paul is an ornithologist who's been suffering some sort of medical/spiritual crisis. Claire knows about her husband's existential dilemma, but is unaware of all the ways he's addressed it.
Writer-directors Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell's tale begins when Paul leaves for a one-man backpacking jaunt in a nearby forest. He's been training himself to live alone in the wilderness, although his brand of survivalism seems to be a response to personal issues, not dystopian fantasies.
Paul has undertaken such trips before, but this time he doesn't return. Claire and her tween son, Connor (Zev Haworth), are left alone to ponder Paul's whereabouts. The local cops help them search for a time, but then, concluding that the case is not a homicide, drop it.
There's one other trail to explore, and it's an annoying one. Without telling his spouse, Paul had begun to advise a group of post-grad art students on an avian-themed project. In the process, the bird man had gone rather arty, and become close to one of the students, Allison. She's voluble, intense, and oblivious of customary boundaries. (Allison is played by Anna Margaret Hollyman, who in Robinson and Howell's previous feature, Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, had a Claire-like part: a tech-oriented woman who's not keen on being pregnant.)
She was not Paul's lover, Allison insists. But she knows things Claire doesn't about his recent feelings and activities. Claire is peeved by the secret intimacy, and irked even further when Allison starts cultivating Connor. The grad student says Paul was "lonely," an observation underscored by a short Paul-shot video Claire now watches over and over.
Allison's intrusiveness is curious, but no more so than the lack of support provided by the bereft Claire's friend (she has only one, apparently) and relatives (none of whom appears, or even calls).
Claire in Motion is a showcase for Brandt, and mostly a solo act. The title character has a complicated role to play for Connor, and impassioned speeches to deliver to both Allison and the absent Paul. But much of performance is devoted to essentially solitary activities: erotic reveries, wearing Paul's clothes, a drunken misadventure at a bar, and repeated pursuits of her husband on trails he may never have walked.
In a mostly severe mode, Brandt carries the film well. But there's only so much she can do with the open-ended, underwritten script. Claire in Motion is a latter-day woman's picture in which the barely glimpsed man seems potentially the most interesting character.