Welcome back Debra Granik. The filmmaker who blew so many away with “Winter’s Bone” returns to the world of narrative moviemaking with “Leave No Trace,” a wonderful character study. Granik is clearly fascinated by life and people on the margins of society. Just look at the documentary “Stray Dog” that she made between these fictional films. In this case, she focuses on a pair who have chosen to exclude themselves. It’s a fascinating story that she tells fantastically well. Jennifer Lawrence got launched by Granik into what would become A-list status, so you know she works well with up and comers. Here, she again works that magic on the silver screen. It’s very good to have Granik back in action.
“Leave No Trace” is much more than a serious version of “Captain Fantastic.” The movie stands on its own as a look at two people who may live differently than we do, but have more in common with us than you might expect. Obviously, the storytelling of Granik helps, but the two main performances also pull you through. In lesser hands, this could have been a chore to sit through. Instead, it’s one of the highlights of the first half of the year. Bravo to all involved.
The father/daughter duo of Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) have been spending years living “off the grid” in a Portland park. To society, they’re homeless, or at least squatting in the forrest. To Tom though, she’s in the only place she’s ever really called home. Her dad Will is a former soldier, one with clear PTSD, but they’ve created something happy and peaceful here. He teaches her survival skills, only occasionally venturing into the city for supplies, or medication from the VA that he sells for extra money. For them, it’s an ideal existence. Then, they’re discovered. From there, everything changes.
Removed from their home and reintroduced into society, Will struggles heavily. He left modern culture for a reason, and being forced back in is tough. Tom, however, takes to it well, being a 13 year old teenage girl. This brings the first bit of true conflict into their relationship. He sees their government provided things and actual home as a prison, while she sees it as a new kind of freedom. Before long, he’s taken her back out of it, towards a new/old home, but challenges await. The saying that you can’t go home again is very true in this case.
Ben Foster has rarely been better than he is here. In “Leave No Trace” he gives an often silent performance, one that requires his soulful eyes to do a lot of the work. There’s a heartbreaking scene where Will is given a test by the social services people, and when asked if he works well with a team, his response tells you a lot about his history. Foster blew many away two years ago with “Hell or High Water,” and this continues his terrific run. In a perfect world, he’d be in the conversation for a Best Actor nomination later on this year.
Thomasin McKenzie is a real find. A newcomer, she makes a naturalistic impression. You fully buy her as a girl discovering the world in a whole new way. Plus, in many ways, she’s the lead performance here. Granik needed her to anchor the picture, which she’s more than capable of doing. With a supporting cast that really only includes Dale Dickey, among name performers, a lot rides on Foster and McKenzie. The former has long been reliable. The latter manages to up the ante and make this a great two hander. Their family chemistry is top notch.
Co-writer/director Debra Granik seamlessly returns to the world of fiction. Along with Anne Rosellini, she adapts Peter Rock‘s novel into something deeply cinematic. The script is calm, poetic, and never goes for the easy moment. Those looking for overtly dramatic moments may find that lacking, but that’s hardly the point. Armed with stunning cinematography from Michael McDonough and Dickon Hinchliffe‘s quietly powerful score, Granik makes this a visually compelling work. Her direction of actors remains she best quality. The movie ends at a divisive point, but it makes sense for what “Leave No Trace” is.
“Leave No Trace” is another example of how Granik’s characters feel so real, this could easily be a documentary. On the flip side, her documentary “Stray Dog” had such a lively subject, she easily could have made a narrative feature about him. The realism she depicts is a rare thing indeed. Granik discovers new talent and they disappear into the role. That’s what she does. With Foster, he also sinks into the part, so you never feel that you’re watching a star. All around, this is easily identifiable as a Granik picture. Additionally, it’s her best one to date. Her talents are on full display here.
This film is a character study in the truest sense. If watching actors shine is your thing, “Leave No Trace” offers up Foster in a tremendous way. Granik hopefully will be in high demand again, which in turn should keep her from being absent from the industry. We deserve more of her. This marks only her third narrative feature, after the aforementioned Lawrence vehicle and her debut work “Down to the Bone.” Give this flick a shot and you’ll see why. It’s one of 2018’s better entries so far.