With Leave No Trace, her first narrative feature film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik continues to focus on characters on the fringes of society. Granik is a filmmaker whose work is steeped in social realism. Winter’s Bone chronicled crushing poverty and the devastating effects of methamphetamine use in the rural Ozarks. In Leave No Trace, the focus is a veteran struggling with PTSD who is also trying to care for and raise his teenage daughter. Granik and her writing partner, Anne Rosellini, adapted Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment for their film. The picture is a meditation on familial love, mental illness, and even the personal sacrifices we all make to be members of society. Granik imbues the film with a great deal of empathy, and her film features two of the best performances of 2018; one from a newcomer who shows talent beyond her years, and the other from an experienced actor turning in the best, most nuanced work of his career.
The movie tells the story of Iraq War veteran Will and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom. Due to a mix of psychological trauma and his disapproval of the values of modern society, Will lives with Tom in the forest of a public park near Portland, Oregon. It’s a meager, subsistence-level life. Will sells his VA-supplied medications to another group living in the park so he can buy food and supplies for his and Tom’s camp. Living on public park land is illegal, and when a hiker spots Tom, it’s not long before law enforcement takes the father and daughter into custody. A social worker places them with a farmer who allows them to live in a house on his property in exchange for Will working on the farm. Will chafes at his new responsibilities even as Tom begins to find comfort in a stable living environment.
Granik’s strength as a storyteller lies in her ability to telegraph themes and ideas in the smallest of character moments. Tom’s simple refrain of “I’m hungry,” which she repeats several times during the movie, lets us know that while she loves her dad, and is happy to be with him, the kind of life they live isn’t ideal.
As they hike into town to buy supplies, Tom finds a necklace on the ground with a seahorse charm on it. She asks her dad if she can keep it. He tells her that if it’s still there on their way back to camp, she can. Tom tries to hide the necklace under the leaves of a plant, and Will admonishes her to put it back in plain sight, so that if the owner comes looking for it, they can find it. She does as he says, but not before trying to cover it with some dirt as she gets up. It’s a wonderful demonstration to us that despite her circumstances, Tom is still just a kid. Her later fascination with seahorses as the story moves forward serves the same purpose.
Granik also treats Will’s fractured mental state with the same subtle nuance. It’s easy to imagine any number of filmmakers representing the character’s psychological state with dramatic fireworks. Will waking from a nightmare while screaming, maybe. Instead, we get just hints of the enormous strain with which he grapples. The far-off sound of helicopters that aren’t really there. Will squatting down with his hands protecting his head as he works to harvest the farmer’s Christmas tree crop. These understated moments serve to show us the character’s trauma.
Leave No Trace also does a fantastic job of holding opposing views of Will and Tom’s living situation in tension, exploring them in a contemplative way. When they are both taken into custody, the authorities give Will and Tom a series of standardized tests. Tom’s tests assess her educational development, while Will’s are designed to evaluate his mental stability and well-being. The tests, with their automated scoring – Tom is instructed to only fill in the bubbles of her chosen answer, because the computer can’t tell an answer from a stray mark, meanwhile Will has three seconds to give an answer of “yes” or “no” into a microphone before the computer moves on in the 300+ question test – are shown as dehumanizing. These impersonal tests showcase the worst of our modern society, where it’s easy to feel like a broken cog in a giant machine.
At the same time, the film shows the importance of connecting with other human beings, especially for a 13-year-old child. The social worker comments on how, despite being unhoused and her father being her only teacher, Tom is ahead of children her age in education level. That might be so, but we see the inquisitive, guarded Tom begin to blossom any time she engages in socialization activities. She meets a boy who invites her to a Future Farmers of America meeting where the members care for rabbits. Another scene, late in the story, delivers a crucial metaphor. Tom meets a beekeeper, and her imagination is sparked when the woman tells Tom about the trust that develops between the bees and their keeper. “You don’t need to be scared,” the beekeeper says. The movie, and Tom, make the connection of that sentiment applying to people interacting with other people, too, not just bees. It gives Tom the strength to confront her father about the way they live.
The beauty of Leave No Trace, aside from the gorgeous Pacific Northwest locations in which the film was shot, comes from the delicate, understated performances of the two leads. The themes Granik explores are made all the more resonant because of the way actors Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie portray Will and Tom, respectively. As a pair, their father-daughter dynamic comes across as wholly authentic.
Ben Foster is an actor I’ve struggled with in the past. His performances – like in the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma or 2016’s Hell or High Water, a film in which I was in the minority for disdaining – are distractingly broad and showy. His work has always bordered on obnoxious for me. In Leave No Trace, Foster delivers his best work ever. He taps into a quiet stoicism as Will that is transcendent.
Virtually unknown New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie is also phenomenal. She gives Tom a steely resolve that, if you are paying attention, is at risk of cracking at any moment. Through both her determinedly set jaw and anxiety-filled eyes, McKenzie lets us know the emotional toll that Will’s way of life has taken on Tom.
Granik, Foster, and McKenzie collaborate on Leave No Trace to shed light on the crisis of homeless veterans and the people in their lives that are also affected. At the same time, they create an incredibly moving portrait of a father and daughter struggling to find their way in society. The movie personalizes an issue that many people think of in an abstract sense, if they think about it at all.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Leave No Trace is an instance of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The acting and direction complement each other in wonderful ways. This is a film with a huge heart, and something serious on its mind.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Will and Tom are “encouraged” to attend church services while living in the home of the farmer. Will tries to make peace with everything he’s required to do by telling himself and Tom that, “We can still think our own thoughts.” This lead me down a rabbit hole of the idea of socialization, and the trade-offs we make between personal freedom and being members of a society. How much do we put up with in the pursuit of living the way we want? It’s an interesting theme that the movie encourages the audience to contemplate.
- Law enforcement officers break up a camp of people living in the park at one point. There is a magnificent book titled White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America that addresses how our society thinks about people we consider “trash.” Throughout history, the most reviled people have been squatters. People who don’t own land or have permanent housing (usually because they lack the resources to secure those things) are treated as the scum of the earth, and Leave No Trace gets at some of those attitudes.
- Granik is known for using non-professional actors in her movies, and there are quite a few here. Not all of them are believable, but that’s a small quibble with what is such a moving film.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- Watched on another awards consideration DVD screener. I feel like I’m becoming a real misanthrope (more so than I already am). It’s going to be a rude awakening when these screeners dry up, and I have to deal with other human beings again.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- We’ve had the iconic songs from the original Mary Poppins for over half a decade. I remember singing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as an elementary school student. So, it will be no small feat even for Disney to serve up another classic in the sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. If anyone can do it, though, it will be the charming Emily Blunt, who is stepping into the role that Julie Andrews made so memorable.