'Leave No Trace'
After her 2011 ‘Winter’s Bone’ delighted audiences, received four Oscar nominations, and made a star of Jennifer Lawrence, plenty of people waited to see what would be next on the feature front for writer/director Debra Granik. With ‘Leave No Trace’, she once again provides a slice of Americana with a gothic tinge. The movie further solidifies Granik as one of the boldest, most interesting independent filmmakers working today.
Based on the novel by Peter Rock, ‘Leave No Trace’ follows an Army veteran named Will (Ben Foster) struggling with PTSD, living off grid in the woods of Oregon with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Will teaches Tom how to be unseen in the public park, creating a secret camp away from the trappings of civilization. When they’re discovered and forced to conform with the system, they’re treated with kindness and understanding, but even the most sympathetic of societal trappings continues to make Will bristle due to the demons that constantly plague him.
The film wrests heavily on the two leads, and once again Granik shows her chops at eliciting exceptional performances from actors. Foster’s credits speak for themselves, and he provides another nauanced, subtle take. Relative newcomer McKenzie, a Kiwi with only a few roles under her belt, constantly surprises. The role could easily turn precocious or maudlin, but her balance between fierceness and sensitivity is perfectly poised.
This echoes the general scope of the film. Granik never succumbs to the obvious trappings of a more explosive or middlebrow telling of the story. She demonstrates tremendous restraint, reigning in what could devolve into histrionics to find the moments of introspection that speak even more loudly. Broad political and social ills are addressed, but the film never touches upon these elements in a dogmatic or polemical way. There are no bad guys here, just well-meaning individuals driven either by their own experiences or a desire to genuinely help.
This refusal to read the circumstances in simplistic ways energizes the film, breaking it away from the middling versions of this kind of story that easily could have been wrung from the source material. While some audiences may wish for more rollercoaster thrills, it’s to Granik and her collaborators’ immense credit that the film stays on track and never loses its way.
A powerful, sensitive film that looks at those stuck between the obligations of society and the invisible scars that conflict leaves behind, ‘Leave No Trace’ showcases the work of a director perfectly attuned with the story she wishes to tell, eliciting exceptional performances from her leads and showcasing the best of what American indies can deliver.