Best known for launching the career of one Jennifer Lawrence with Winter’s Bone in 2010, Debra Granik is back after a very long eight year wait with Leave No Trace, another tale of remote Americans featuring a fantastic breakout turn from a young actress. This time around, Granik puts the spotlight on Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Tom, a 13 year old girl living with her father Will (Ben Foster) in a national park on the outskirts of Portland. Though Foster may be the cast’s big name, and he is of course excellent from start to finish, this is absolutely McKenzie’s film as she skilfully navigates the conflicting feelings of a loyal daughter who needs to start living her own life.
The wilderness parenting subject matter naturally invites comparisons to Captain Fantastic, Leave No Trace is a far more subtle and serious take on the material, instead bringing to mind the tone and structure of the recent lauded weepie Lean On Pete. Tom and Will’s travels bring them into frequent contact with varying degrees of civilisation, from isolated woodland trailer parks to major urban centres. Refreshingly, these encounters never descend into smug, broad-strokes proselytising against either natural or ‘artificial’ lifestyles, Granik putting kindness and empathy at the forefront of her film.
From the central father-daughter relationship to the well-meaning strangers and officials Tom and Will meet on their journey, everyone in Granik’s world wants to help as much as possible. It’s an optimistic look at America that’s all too rare on screen, avoiding heavy-handedness at all points. Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini’s script, adapting the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, is smart and sensitive, filling in enough backstory to allow the audience a complete picture of the characters without wasting any time on unnecessary exposition.
Will’s PTSD and military service are teased out slowly, and Foster’s quiet, internal performance is often heartbreaking. McKenzie matches him every step of the way as a self-reliant and understanding, but still nervous and awkward, kid starting a new phase of life. Their relationship is superbly well-drawn and touching; they’re each other’s best friends as well as family. This strong but understated character work also extends into their arguments, never histrionic but always compelling, especially in one standout sequence where Tom worries about attending a school for the first time. Will’s advice to ‘ignore everyone’s judgements’ might work for an army vet in his 40s, but is hopelessly inadequate for a shy teenager, and this near-insurmountable gulf in life experience is conveyed in just a few words.
Granik’s direction does a great job of putting us in Tom’s headspace. Crisp and clear close-ups and panning shots of the environment out in the woods give way to alienating long shots and unfamiliar perspectives once she enters any urban space. Leave No Trace’s soundscapes are also masterful, the omnipresent buzz of forest life interrupted by loud and disorienting intrusions from gunshots and vehicles. Danger, be it wolves or park rangers, is always heard before it is seen, keeping tension high.
Like its leads, Leave No Trace never stays still for long. Most characters are moved aside and forgotten about as circumstances end up forcing Tom and Will further north, into the bitterly cold forests of Washington state, though a trailer park community manages to persuade even Will to stick around for a little while. Using a mix of familiar faces, like Dale Dickey as the park’s manager, and non-actors, this makeshift society is warm and inviting, and every scene in their company is tremendously affecting. Each character does their utmost to find common ground with one another, making it all the more sad when Will’s condition forces Tom and him to abandon them.
Leave No Trace is committed to letting its audience draw their own conclusions rather than forcing you to side with or against Will and his raising of Tom. He loves his daughter and is clearly an able educator, but he also sells prescription pills to the homeless to get by and seemingly hasn’t considered getting Tom her own tent as she grows up. As both a carefully balanced character study and heartfelt coming of age story, Leave No Trace is an intelligent and quietly wonderful drama.