Best known for launching the career of Jennifer Lawrence with Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s first film since that 2010 entry is another excellent story of hidden, isolated Americans with a breakout central performance, this time from Thomasin McKenzie. McKenzie plays Tom, a 13 year old girl living in Oregon woods with her PTSD-stricken father Will (Ben Foster), an ex-soldier who needs to stay moving to stay sane.
Leave No Trace’s subject matter draws comparisons to Captain Fantastic, but this is a more serious and subtle look at growing up in the wilderness, its tone and structure instead reminiscent of the recent Lean on Pete. It’s wonderfully understated and understanding, avoiding smugness and sweeping dismissals of any particular lifestyle. Granik’s script never belabours any point, trusting her audience to draw their own conclusions.
Tom and Will’s bickering always feels authentic, especially in one superb scene where Tom worries about joining a school for the first time. Will’s advice to ignore judgement from others might work for an army vet in his 40s, but is hopelessly ineffective for a socially awkward teenager. McKenzie and Foster play the ensuing argument perfectly, one of more than a few quietly heartbreaking sequences.
Granik does a fantastic job of showing the ‘civilised’ world from unfamiliar angles, putting us firmly in Tom’s bemused headspace. Her creation of soundscapes is masterful, the omnipresent buzz of the wild occasionally interrupted by disorienting intrusions from gunshots and vehicles. Danger is always heard before it is seen, keeping tension high.
Kindness and empathy are at the core of Leave No Trace, from the central father-daughter relationship to the well-meaning strangers they encounter on their travels. It’s a tremendously affecting film that never resorts to cheap manipulation, and with any luck we’ll be seeing Granik’s follow up in less than 8 years.
CAST: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey
DIRECTOR: Debra Granik
WRITERS: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, Peter Rock (novel, My Abandonment)
SYNOPSIS: A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living in an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever.