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Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace review by FilmZ

Director Debra Granik has made only three feature films in her 21-year career, which is unfortunate because she has a unique voice and eye, and she is a true feminist filmmaker.  Her tone is naturalistic, not quite documentarian, but her films elicit the sense that lives are unfolding before our eyes.  We are omniscient observers, close-up voyeurs, witnessing young female protagonists, dirt-poor and on the fringes of American society, as they strive to overcome existential threats.  They are in sink or swim situations, but where most modern films create viscerally satisfying fight scenes or bombastic verbal confrontations, Granik avoids such cheap externalized thrills.  Her heroines' tensions and turmoils are internal; they don't talk a lot; they don't act tough; they don't rush into danger with fists flying or guns blazing.  Granik's heroines sidle forward slowly but inexorably; as their challenges grow so do they, and they have grit and determination, quietly refusing to lose.

In Leave No Trace, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a 13-year-old living with her father Will (Ben Foster) in a public forest on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.  They live in a tent for two, foraging for food, and scrimping pennies--they use a flint to start kindling to cook their meals instead of wasting precious propane.  They only walk into town when necessary, they move campsites frequently, and they practice evasion and concealment drills in case rangers show.  We learn that Tom's mother is no longer around, but back story is not what LNT is about; in fact, we only learn gradually that Will suffers from PTSD--a nightmare of a helicopter, strained reveries in private moments, selling his meds for the cash they need, and, of course, his withdrawal from society.

Then one day they are caught, and the two are separated as police and social workers try to sort out the situation.  Tom is questioned and tested by Jean (Dana Millican), a caring social worker who discovers that the youngster is intelligent and well-cared for by a loving father.  Meanwhile, Will, is undergoing a grueling battery of questions meant to assess his stability and parental adequacy.  At this point, the obvious plot move would be to have the system try to take Tom from Will, but LNT is not the obvious film.  Here, Jean sets up a job for Will, public schooling for Tom, and a pre-fab home.  Tom naturally takes to socialization, even meeting a boy, (Isaiah Stone) and going to a 4-H meeting; at the same time, Will's internal struggles deepen.  Forced interpersonal relationships and work responsibilities are bad enough, but his trauma reaches the tipping point when he is handed a stack of legal documents that will bind him and Tom to their new society.  After work one day, Will packs up and informs a reluctant Tom that they are fleeing back to the wilderness.  It is here where their paths begin to diverge.

In her directorial debut, Granik headed a team of writers and directed Down to the Bone.  That film gained recognition at Sundance and with the Film Independent Spirit Awards and brought then 29-year old Vera Farmiga to prominence.  Her performance caught the eye of Martin Scorsese, who cast Farmiga in The Departed.  It was six more years before Granik directed and adapted the screenplay with Anne Rosselini for Winter's Bone, which did even better on the awards circuit and was nominated for four Academy Awards--Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (John Hawkes), and it catapulted Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.

It follows that, in just two films, Debra Granik became known as something of an actress whisperer.  So, it should come as no surprise that comparison are drawn between McKenzie, an 18-year old New Zealander, and her predecessors. Comparisons may be unfair at this juncture, but the quiet intensity of her performance is certainly places her somewhere on the continuum with them.  But Granik pulls quality performances from all of her actors.  She is known to use non-actors to fill minor roles that bring texture and realism to her films, and she does the same here for scenes about beekeeping, and Christmas tree cutting.  She also brings along Dale Dickey an old hand from Winter's Bone to play Dale.  And in a combination of the two, Granik pulled Isaiah Stone, an Ozark local who played a part in Winter's Bone to play Isaiah here (Granik likes to call people by their names).  We've been saying for a couple of years now that Ben Foster risks typecasting as the hair-trigger crazy man, so teaming with Granik was a smart move.  Foster's Will is a man quietly being eaten from the inside out.  The only thing Will has in life is Tom, but as she grows, his protectiveness becomes a millstone to her, and he knows it.  Thus lies the crux of Leave No Trace.  As a film, it falls a little short of the rural noir classic Winter's Bone, but that's no insult.
8.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale


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