“We can still have our own thoughts…”
Debra Granik’s harrowing thriller set in the Ozarks made Jennifer Lawrence a star, but it’s been a long eight years since Winter’s Bone came out. Granik has made a couple of documentaries since then, yet what cinephiles have been clamoring for is a return to feature-length filmmaking. Her empathetic eye has been missed. Leave No Trace, her newest film, focuses on a father and daughter living off-grid in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon. Granik tells stories that don’t fit into the American sense of self that’s been promised over the years. People who survive on the margins in areas that haven’t seen a respectful or nonjudgmental screen treatment in decades.
Unlike The Road, which focused on a father-son duo barely surviving in a post-dystopian apocalypse, Leave No Trace calmly follows a family who voluntarily checks out of the hustle and bustle of life in 21st Century America. Oregon’s Forest Park is a sublimely beautiful refuge, that is until it’s encroached on by outside forces. Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom, (Thomasin McKenzie) have been preparing for this day. In between their daily rituals of gathering, reading, and hiding from wolves at night, they play high-stakes games of hide-and-seek in the eventuality they are caught. Will and Tom are resourceful, but, more importantly, educated, which is the only way they survive. Granik responsibly recognizes that while self-sufficient living in the wild is admirable, it is far from romantic.
Will served overseas, though what he did and experienced in his tour is unknown to Tom. She is the only half of the father-daughter duo capable of expression; Will is reserved to the point of being catatonic. But don’t take that to mean he is incapable of compassion, it is only because of the horror’s he saw that he took Tom off the grid. He doesn’t want the world to tear her apart like it has done to him. Their separation upon being discovered was inevitable but still proves traumatic. Here is where Granik and screenwriter Anne Rosellini veer off the beaten path to choose a different story to tell. After a slight adjustment, Tom proves more than capable of surviving–no, thriving–in this modern world. The look on Tom’s face proves both hopeful as she gleans new possibilities, and devastating as the guilt of her father’s predicament eats away at her. She enjoys the time spent in the woods with her father, Will cannot live any other way.
Ben Foster’s performance as Will is a testament to the reserve that the actor is capable of when he’s not playing wild cards as he has in Hell or High Water and Hostiles. Here, the promise of an explosion lies in wait, counting on viewers to remember Foster’s unhinged turns in previous films. The deliberate decision to leave Will’s backstory vague might make it difficult for some viewers to relate to his character, but it also doubles as Tom’s perception of events. She doesn’t know the full extent of her father’s pain, accordingly, she is always going out of her way to protect him. And the panic that lays in the corners of Will’s eyes usually justifies her choices. With Foster focused on staying reserved, that leaves the bulk of the acting burden on relative newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. And she, like Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, is a thrilling discovery, capable of delivering the emotional truths of the film’s hard-hitting moments. It’s not up to Will to choose their fate; Tom must decide how much pain she can carry before it impacts her future. Will didn’t have other options after coming back from the war, his daughter has her entire life in front of her.
Granik could have retold a number of stories where a parent and child come to a precipice where the parent must protect the child at the cost of themselves, but she flips the script with Leave No Trace. In this instance, it’s the parent who proves to be the weaker link. Waiting for and watching the moment that eventually comes between every parent and child is the linchpin of the film; forged by the genuine connection between Foster and McKenzie. I don’t know if there will be a better composite achievement by two actors this year.