Finally, a role worthy of Freaks and Geeks star Linda Cardellini.

 Linda Cardellini and John Slattery in Return

© 2011 Return Film LLC. All rights reserved.

Such is the power of Freaks and Geeks that, even though I was in my early 30s when it first aired, its young cast feels to me a decade later like people I knew and loved in high school. There’s an absurd rush of “Hey, I knew them when!” pride whenever one of the kids from that show finds a measure of success in his or her career. Unfortunately, the “hims” have found a lot more of that success than the “hers.”The entire male “freak” contingent (James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen) has gone on to stardom and the creative freedom that comes with it, while the equally talented female freaks, Busy Phillips and Linda Cardellini, have kept working without ever quite getting the chance to bust out that they deserve. (The “geeks” would require another column entirely: I for one will not rest until Martin Starr, Samm Levine, and John Francis Daly all headline their own comedies in the same programming block.)

Busy Phillips, who played the tantrum-prone bully Kim Kelly (one of the great villains-turned-good-guys in TV history), has an ongoing role on the ABC sitcom Cougar Town. But Linda Cardellini, whose perpetually self-reinventing good girl Lindsay was Freaks and Geeks’ lead character and emotional center, has been direly underserved by her post-F & G career. OK, Velma in the Scooby Doo movies was a natural casting idea given Cardellini’s short stature and wide, heart-shaped face, but … Velma in the Scooby Doo movies? And her part in Brokeback Mountain, as the good-time girl who tries in vain to tempt Heath Ledger back into the heterosexual fold, was too small to demonstrate Cardellini’s full range. She did have a well-regarded stint on ER, but it was during the last six seasons, well past the show’s creative prime.

But finally someone has written a really good role for Linda Cardellini—a big, prickly, demanding role that puts her onscreen in literally every scene—and it’s a thrill to watch her operating at full throttle. Return is the debut feature of writer/director Liza Johnson, a modest, slow-burning indie about a National Guard member who’s just returned to her small Rust Belt town after a tour of duty.

Kelli (Cardellini) didn’t see a lot of action in the unnamed country where she was stationed—she spent most of her time unloading cargo from supply planes—but in conversations with a friend she admits to having witnessed some “weird shit.” It’s one of this movie’s great strengths that we never learn the precise nature of that weird shit: no flashbacks, no big confessional scene. Kelli doesn’t even have PTSD, at least not as the movies have shown it to us—she’s not jumping out of her skin at every twig snap or sleeping with a loaded firearm under her pillow. She just feels a bit off—phlegmatic, aimless, inexplicably depressed. Her handyman husband (Michael Shannon playing, for once, a nice normal guy) has been single-parenting their two young daughters in Kelli’s absence, and he’s more than ready to hand off some of the responsibility, but she doesn’t seem prepared to take it.

Unlike the male soldiers in recent returning-veteran movies (Toby Maguire in Brothers, Ryan Philippe in Stop-Loss), Kelli rarely if ever freaks out on an operatic, mayhem-inducing scale. Her screw-ups are more incremental: She quits her job at a factory in a moment of boredom and frustration (“this is bullshit!”), or forgets which is her day to pick up her daughter after school. But Johnson is ruthless at showing how those small mistakes can quickly reduce an ordered life to chaos. Driving alone one night after drinking at a friend’s house, Kelli gets a DUI and a must attend a state-mandated AA meeting (where her protests that alcohol ranks low on her list of problems ring true). There she meets a Vietnam veteran (the memorably sleazy John Slattery) who offers her solidarity, venison, sex, and Oxycontin, in that order.

I kept waiting for Return to get to the obligatory third-act spiral of addiction and debasement, but Johnson’s film remains quiet and precise in its portrait of a woman struggling to keep it together and almost, almost managing. The dialogue is sharply observed and the whole ensemble (especially Shannon and Slattery) fine, but it’s Cardellini’s warmth and intelligence that hold the whole thing together. It’s a remarkably unsentimental performance, free of actressy self-enjoyment: Kelli is no noble martyred war hero but a troubled woman who can be self-pitying, ungrateful, and infuriatingly passive. But even when we don’t like Kelli, we can’t help loving her. The honesty of Cardellini’s performance makes this confused young mother someone you ardently want to see succeed—not unlike the gifted young actress who plays her.