'Leave No Trace': Film Review | Sundance 2018
The new film from 'Winter's Bone' director Debra Granik stars Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as a father and daughter living in the Oregon wilderness.
With just a few films — about a strung-out mother in Down to the Bone, Ozark meth cookers in Winter’s Bone and a motorcycle-riding Vietnam vet in the documentary Stray Dog — Debra Granik has carved out a niche as one of American cinema’s foremost chroniclers of the white poor and working class.
Since the rise of Trump, these citizens (and oh-so-hot election commodities) have been on the receiving end of renewed fascination in newspaper pages — and, less fetishistically, though unmistakably, in movies like Logan Lucky, The Florida Project, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and I, Tonya. But with Granik’s films, unlike some of those aforementioned, you don’t feel the distance between director and milieu. She doesn’t approach her marginalized characters as objects of curiosity or comedy, derision or pity; she comes at them straight-on, with clear-eyed, unsentimental compassion.
That compassion fills every frame of Leave No Trace, Granik’s tough-minded, touching new drama. Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, the movie centers on the chasm that opens up between a fiercely close father and daughter: PTSD-afflicted veteran and widower Will (Ben Foster), who insists on living apart from the world, and teenager Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who finds herself yearning to join it. Though the narrative is built around conflict — one person’s desire for isolation clashing with another’s craving for community — its quietly wrenching power stems not from any sense of right versus wrong, but from Granik’s ability to make you understand both people. The filmmaker has crafted an unusual coming-of-age tale, in which a teen declares independence from her parent gradually, gingerly, with tact and consideration rather than rebelliousness.
We first see Will and Tom living in a sprawling public park in the mountains outside Portland, Oregon. With typical economy, Granik shows them going about the business of survival: picking plants and mushrooms to eat, “feathering” wood for fire, boiling eggs, catching rain water to drink. Their camp looks makeshift, but the ease with which they navigate the wilderness and the casual intimacy of their interactions suggest this has long been the way they’ve lived.
The screenplay, adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini, doesn’t spell out how or why Will and Tom ended up here, a kind of modern-day, woods-dwelling Prospero and Miranda. Instead, bits of background information are doled out with merciful understatement, allowing us to piece together a rationale: Will’s choice to remove himself and his daughter from society is an act both of ideology (a rejection of consumer-capitalist excess) and of psychological self-preservation (a need for utmost peace after the trauma of war).
Granik and DP Michael McDonough are alive to the setting’s majesty, their naturalistic images brimming with vibrant greens and conjuring a cool dampness you feel in your bones. Like Granik’s other movies, this one is unflinching, but never bombards you with the grimy specifics of struggle. While the park is a challenging environment, it's also Will and Tom's private paradise, and they've built a functional, even fulfilling life inside it; when Tom asserts at one point that she and her dad have never been “homeless,” you understand what she means.
Further distinguishing Granik’s films from others in a similar regional-realist-indie vein are the flickers of hopefulness and flashes of warmth that illuminate them. As hard-bitten and desperate as her characters often are — Will sells benzos to other vets for grocery money — she allows them to be sympathetic; even sinister ones, like the witchy henchwoman played by Dale Dickey in Winter’s Bone (the actress shows up in Leave No Trace in a more benevolent mode), are granted moments of almost heroic decency. In Granik’s new movie, that generosity is extended to characters like a social worker (a very good Dana Millican) who seem minor but are evidence of the director’s humanism — her faith that even broken American institutions are full of people doing their best.
A less nuanced, fair-spirited film might have turned Will into some kind of taciturn tyrant, indoctrinating his daughter and depriving her of normalcy. Yet as conceived here — and played, wonderfully, by Foster — he’s a good father, attentive and devoted. There’s balance and tenderness in his relationship with Tom, from their secret noise of endearment to the way they brush dirt off each other before heading into town for supplies.
Their bond is so vividly delineated that when the police remove them from their camp and they’re placed on different floors of a social service center, you feel the ache and panic of that separation. Tom and Will are soon reunited — Granik films their embrace in discreet long shot, subtly bucking convention — and brought to live in a furnished house on a Christmas tree farm. In one of the movie’s most perceptive moments, they stand around in the living room, unsure of what to do now that basic survival is no longer a full-time occupation.
“We can still think our own thoughts,” Will reassures Tom, though he’s really trying to reassure himself. Whereas Tom takes to her new situation — learning to bike, befriending a local boy (Isaiah Stone) who raises rabbits, even deriving a certain bemused pleasure from a Sunday church service — Will balks. It doesn’t help that the job he’s given, cutting down trees on the farm, is essentially antithetical to his values and worldview. A shot of Will cowering between rows of pruned pines as a helicopter hovers noisily overhead, ready to haul the trees away for sale, tells us all we need to know; it’s not long before he asks Tom to pack her things, and back into the woods they go.
Leave No Trace is a lower-octane film than Winter’s Bone: Its protagonists aren’t as audience-friendly as Jennifer Lawrence’s plucky Ree Dolly, nor does the former's story have the latter’s creeping undercurrent of Southern Gothic or shivery notes of noir. Still, it’s in many ways a subtler, more mature work, with the unhurried, observational quality of some contemporary European art cinema but none of the formal fastidiousness and rub-your-nose-in-it grimness.
Foster is a remarkably expressive, versatile performer, equally convincing playing febrile and wild-eyed (Alpha Dog, Hell or High Water) or courtly and inward (The Messenger, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). He makes Will an authentically complex figure: gentle, sensitive, but also rigid — and always fighting off waves of melancholy and anxiety that threaten to submerge him.
Foster’s fragility plays beautifully off McKenzie’s steadiness and poise. The young actress (previously in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) has a sweet, girlish voice that belies Tom’s steely determination, as well as an inquisitiveness that seems to blossom before your eyes. In the film’s final act, when she and Will find shelter in a welcoming rural co-op, you can see her sparking to new possibilities of connectedness and stability.
The suspense in Leave No Trace is less about where the pair ends up than how they can get there without breaking each other’s hearts. The movie takes its time, but in its unassuming way, draws you close and keeps you there. You want to see whether this father and daughter will understand, as Granik clearly does, that if holding fast — to people, ideas, ways of life — is an expression of love, so is letting go.
Production companies: Harrison Productions, Reisman Productions, Still Rolling Productions
Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini; based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock
Producers: Anne Harrison, Linda Reisman, Anne Rosellini, Chris Stinson
Executive producers: Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Andy Pollack, Michael Bloom, Adam Pincus
Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey
Director of photography: Michael McDonough
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Production designer: Chad Keith
Costume designer: Erin Orr
Original music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)