Leave No Trace Directed by Debra Granik
Starring Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster
Published Jul 03, 2018Leave No Trace isn't alone in finding stark contrast between the peacefulness of nature and the noisy throb of the city. Opening in a forest in Oregon, the latest from director Debra Granik –– and her first fiction feature since 2010's Winter's Bone –– plants us in a lush, green land, idyllic in its peacefulness. Hike out of the enveloping, leafy cradle and there's Portland and its highways and concrete structures and controlled chaos. It might be the City of Roses but, in comparison to the woods, Portland presents an at-times jarring experience.
Among the stillness of the forest and the cacophony of the city, there's the driving journey of Leave No Trace, always moving forward, always with a task at hand. Will and Tom, a father and daughter, are looking for a place to be when one option can't exist in America today and the other proves to be too much.
When we first meet them, the two are living as off-the-grid as they can. Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) is in her early teens, bringing a gentle curiosity to the world around her. Her life is geared toward survival, though not in a clawing way. She collects mushrooms, cooks, reads, and, on occasion, participates in drills to hide in the forest with her father Will, played by a notably subdued Ben Foster.
From the top, the film needs the audience to admire the simple balance they can find, even if its conclusion seems fated. Granik and her crew build and capture this life in fresh and evocative ways. Winter's Bone matched a shining new talent in Jennifer Lawrence with a propulsive quest and a group of filmmakers firmly planted in the immediacy of the film's environment; Leave No Trace can rest on the latter, trusting that simply moving Will and Tom through these spaces will go a long way towards fleshing out their story.
A peaceful life always seems to have a disruption waiting for it around the corner. Here, the pair can't stay off the radar and their life is thrown into disarray. As they're moved from their forest equilibrium, we learn more about Will. A diagnosis isn't shared out loud, but it seems at least some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder is at work here, driving him away from the trappings of modern American life. Foster's well known for nervy intensity in his roles; here, he scales that aspect back considerably, playing Will's turmoil as a part of himself he's actively repressing.
If Will can't seem to fit in society anymore, Tom could be on the other end of the spectrum. Everywhere she goes, she engages with everything and everyone around her, fully and earnestly. McKenzie is giving in tactile performance, where Tom understands the world around her by going up and getting her hands on it. As Will falls to find a way forward, Tom is forever clear-eyed and open.
Along with Granik, a similar group to Winter's Bone comes together to convey a ground-level understanding of the people and environs here. This includes cinematographer Michael McDonough, composer Dickson Hinchliffe, and co-writer Anne Rosellini, who, as much as any contributions can be sussed out, do pitch perfect work here. The casting crew deserves special note –– top to bottom, the film is filled out with professional actors who seem natural to their roles and with seemingly non-traditional or amateur actors who seem plucked from real life.
Before and after Winter's Bone, films have seen parental challenges as a setting for questions of economic anxiety or philosophical disagreement. In recent years, Captain Fantastic featured Viggo Mortensen trying to forge a new way to raise children altogether away from convention, or Lean on Pete, where Charlie Plummer is a son living with a broke single dad and we see how bad it can get for someone leaving without a social safety net. Stories like this use the parental relationship, one of the most vulnerable and intimate relationships, to dig into these ideas.
Will doesn't want Tom to become a self-sustaining philosopher to the degree of Captain Fantastic, and their lives aren't so tied to a specific economic downturn like Lean on Pete seems linked to our moment. In Leave No Trace, there's no space left for Will to gain respite away from it all. Ultimately, his search has to come into conflict with introducing Tom to society, a realization that creeps and creeps through this film.