It took eight years, but we’ve finally got another feature film from Debra Granik (director/co-writer of “Winter’s Bone”). It’s called “Leave No Trace,” and it’s brilliant.
Like “Winter’s Bone,” Granik’s new film takes place mostly outdoors, follows people on the fringes of society and features a breakout performance from a young actress destined for great things.
In “Leave No Trace,” the future star is Thomasin McKenzie.
She plays Tom, a 13-year-old living in an urban park outside Portland, Oregon, with her father, Will (Ben Foster).
Will is a veteran with PTSD, unable to reintegrate into society. But father and daughter manage quite well off on their own. They have food and a makeshift shelter. Instead of phone, TV or Internet, they read books and play chess. Will’s night terrors aside, their situation seems more idyllic than desperate.
But then Tom makes a mistake, and the two are arrested for living on public land. They’re quickly separated and churned through a system of forms and tests and assessments of their intelligence and psychological well-being.
Their future remains in question. They can’t go back to their camp. But perhaps there are other options?
Tom is excited by the prospect of integration, making new friends. But Will isn’t so sure he can hack it back on the grid.
Getting a job, paying rent, sleeping indoors, going to church every Sunday. These just aren’t things Will can do.
Adapting a novel by Peter Rock, Granik and her co-writer, Anne Rosellini, have penned a simple but powerful story that revolves around a wrenching conflict: Two people love each other deeply, but can no longer live in the same world.
Details are meted out sparingly, if at all. For instance, where is Tom’s mom? That’s never determined.
And what happened to Will overseas? A lesser film would give us a combat flashback or have Will deliver a long monologue about his horrific experiences. “Leave No Trace” is content to let Foster’s haunted expression do all the talking.
This is a movie about the present, about the surprising ways in which a father and daughter have learned how to survive.
As she did in “Winter’s Bone,” Granik takes a low-key and wholly naturalistic approach to the filmmaking. “Leave No Trace” doesn’t use music or big speeches or fast editing to ratchet up the suspense or sadness of the story. It doesn’t promote any of its police officers or social workers to the role of villain. They’re all just people, trying to do their jobs, trying to survive.
“Leave No Trace” relies on its strong story, rich atmosphere and its two terrific performances. Every note of it rings true.
Michael McDonough’s lovely cinematography helps in the atmosphere department. Mostly, he just stands back and takes in the beautiful surroundings. But sometimes he and Granik will dip into a bit of symbolism. In a few wide shots, “Leave No Trace” uses huge trees or vast spaces to divide two characters into separate frames, underlining the unbridgeable cultural or emotional distance between them.
Aside from a memorable supporting turn from character actress Dale Dickey (getting to do a complete 180 from the cruel or stupid characters she’s played in “Winter’s Bone” and “Breaking Bad”), “Leave No Trace” is a two-hander for Foster and McKenzie.
In the past, Foster has had a tendency to overdo it. But there’s not a trace of anything actorly here. His Will is quiet, inward. He loves his daughter absolutely. But he knows she needs more than he can give her.
McKenzie’s Tom is a whip-smart survivor, soft-spoken but not incapable of rage. Her gradual understanding that she wants more out of the world is, for her, a source of both joy and fear. She longs to be part of a community. Will bristles at her eagerness to conform.
Tom: “What if kids think I’m strange?”
Will: “How important are their judgments?”
Through Tom and Will’s continual tug-o-war, we can perhaps get a sharper read on our own competing impulses: to be an accepted member of society, or to leave it all behind — walking into the woods, never to be heard from again.
Will and Tom don’t find a perfect solution, but the film does land on a perfect ending, one rich in empathy and kindness. This is a great film. Hopefully, it doesn’t take another eight years for Granik to make another one.
Note: In between “Winter’s Bone” and “Leave No Trace,” Granik made a very good documentary called “Stray Dog,” which ran as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series.
And another thing: Don’t just take my word for it. “Leave No Trace” has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of Thursday evening, with 132 “fresh” (positive) reviews. By Rotten Tomatoes’ standards, that makes it the fourth-best-reviewed film ever made.
The top five
1. “Paddington 2” (2018) 199 positive reviews
2. “Toy Story 2” (1999) 163 positive reviews
3. “Man on Wire” (2008) 158 positive reviews
4. “Leave No Trace” 132 positive reviews
5. “Things to Come” (2016) 130 positive reviews