It’s hard to believe it has been eight years since director Debra Granik’s last narrative feature. That movie was “Winter’s Bone” and it portrayed a distinct slice of America as foreign to most people as a distant alien planet. Her latest is “Leave No Trace” and while not nearly as grim as her previous film, it’s a movie that once again explores a segment of our population on the fringes.
Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini base their script on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment”. It tells the story of a father and daughter living off the grid in a National Forest outside Portland, Oregon (beautifully visualized through Michael McDonough’s camera). Ben Foster gives the performance of his career as Will, a beaten-down veteran and father to his 13-year-old daughter Tom. She’s played by New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie, a relatively fresh new face who matches Foster’s brilliance scene for scene.
With the exception of necessary trips into the city for supplies and to pick up Will’s check from the VA, the pair survive off the land. By nearly every societal standard they are homeless (as a case worker later explains “It’s not a crime to be unhoused, but it’s illegal to live on public land”), but for Will living on their own provides his only sense of freedom. Foster is known for playing intense characters on the edge, but here he so naturally falls into the role with a quietness and restraint that conveys a surprising amount of insight into his character.
Take Will’s struggles with PTSD. He’s haunted by nightmares and flashbacks but we never see any of them, only the effects. Ultimately it’s up to Foster to show the weight of the trauma. It’s a tricky role that the seasoned actor nails.
The story takes a significant shift when Will and Tom are discovered and taken into custody. They are met with compassion and given a place to stay. For Tom this opens up the possibility for stability, to make friends, and to be part of a community (something Granik has a true knack for portraying). Will attempts to adapt but ultimately feels smothered in society’s cage. For the rest of the way the film wrestles with the idea of ‘home’ and what that means to both Will and Tom.
I’ve read some comparisons, but this is no “Captain Fantastic” scenario. If you remember, in that film Viggo Mortensen raises his family to the wilderness as a hippie’s statement against the evils of modern culture. “Stick it to the man!” was their battle cry. There is none of that in “Leave No Trace”. Will has no idealistic stand he’s making. He loves his daughter and is raising her the best way he knows how. The movie makes no harsh judgements on him, but Tom is our conduit and her experience brings us to some inevitable conclusions. She loves her father and wants to be with him. But she’s also becoming her own person. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes Tom lovingly tells her father “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”
Much like she did for Vera Farmiga in 2004 (“Down to the Bone”) and Jennifer Lawrence in 2010 (“Winter’s Bone”), Debra Granik has developed a star-making role for Thomasin McKenzie. The young actress is such a vital piece of the movie – gentle and earnest but with a quiet strength. And you won’t catch a false line in her entire performance. Every soft-spoken word comes from a place of pure sincerity. She’s really good and this is a name you’ll be hearing a lot of.
“Leave No Trace” struck a chord with me early and I could feel its emotional tug all the way till the end. It’s not a movie deeply concerned with plot. Instead it is all about character. Granik’s biggest investment is in creating two people we can care about and can connect with. Maybe not with their specific circumstances but on a deeper human level (while subtly opening some eyes along the way). It certainly worked for me.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS