It’s risky calling a movie a work of art – the phrase can make audiences think they’ll be taking medicine, swallowing something good for them when they’d rather be gorging on multiplex junk food. But there’s no better term to describe the urgency and unbridled emotion of Leave No Trace. You don’t just watch it as much as you absorb it until the film’s ebb and flow become a part of you.
Writer-director Debra Granik’s previous two fiction films are stripped-down versions of survival dramas with women at the forefront: Down to the Bone (2004) details Vera Farmiga white-knuckling her way through life as a cocaine addict, while the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone (2010) follows a young Jennifer Lawrence negotiating a harsh world of Ozarks poverty and parental abandonment. The feminine force this time is a 13-year-old girl named Tom, played by New Zealand-born Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in a dazzling-in-every-detail performance. She lives in a Forest Park in the mountains west of Portland, Oregon, along with her father Will (Ben Foster, indelibly implosive). He’s a war vet suffering from PTSD, and the reason Tom has been in the wild since the death of her mother. Child abuse? Not to her. This life with father is virtually all she has ever known.
McKenzie and Foster display a tender rapport that leaves no doubt about the sincerity of their connection. They forage for mushrooms, collect rainwater, build tents, conduct drills to protect themselves from feral animals and occasionally enter the big city for supplies. Money comes and goes, thanks to Will selling his medication to dealers in a tent city. The movie doesn’t paint this existence as idyllic; thanks to the searching camera eye of cinematographer Michael McDonough, you can feel its harshness. But it works for Tom and Will. That is, until it doesn’t.
Based on the Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, the script cowritten by Granik and Anne Rosellini is stingy with dialogue and backstory. What we know comes from watching Will and Tom together. Their life in the woods is one thing, and becomes something else entirely when society separates them. Living on public land is against the law. Father and daughter are caught and have to run the gauntlet of social services. One rep, played by Dana Millican, is amazed at how well Will has schooled his daughter. But after he answers computerized questions about his mental state, the twosome are assigned housing in a rural commune. Will finds it hard adjusting to a roof over his head.
Tom does not. And it’s here that Leave No Trace finds its heart in the divide between parent and child. The rulebook spits out demands – he must find a job, she must go to school – that invite rebellion. But the young woman responds to classes, to bike riding, to social interaction, to a local boy (Isaiah Stone) who raises rabbits and to the kindness of strangers. Her life does not have to be her father’s, and Granik lets glimmers of hope fight their way into her unflinching view of a broken America. That’s what gives her hypnotic and haunting tale of letting go its quiet power and amazing grace.