Director: Debra Granik
Stars: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober
Will (Ben Foster) is a war veteran suffering the after effects of his experiences. Rejecting the clutter, chaos and waste of the modern world, he has decided to live in the woods, retreating into a dense sprawl of Oregon parkland. With him is his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). She has been raised, seemingly, in his company alone. Their relationship is one of fierce co-dependency and love of almost idyllic innocence.
This is how we discover the focal characters of Debra Granik’s new film; her first since 2010’s Winter’s Bone which, among other things, made a star of Jennifer Lawrence. There’s every reason to suspect a similar trajectory for Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, depending on the wider reaction or coverage Leave No Trace secures. And it would be a shame if this picture vanished as deftly as the title suggests, for it is one of the great pleasures to have been released so far this year.
Having been spied by a jogger, Will and Tom are ousted from the park by the police and placed into care. The ‘help’ they receive from the system is depicted with great fairness, and one could readily argue that their situation is vastly improved. Remaining together, they are re-homed by a kind man named Walters (Jeff Kober) in a rural area.
While Tom starts flourishing from the opportunities to interact with a wider pool of people, Will finds the return to ‘normality’ crushing, and he soon plans to return to the woods. Their bond so strong, where one goes the other must follow. The film charts the uneasy course of shifting between intense self-sufficiency and the everyday world of community and business.
Not a scene is wasted or superfluous to Graniak’s vision. This is pared down cinema, reflecting an America of truck drivers and farmers, train yards and woodland trails. It breathes with the same spirit of Mid-West poetry than runs through the work of Kelly Reichardt, although Graniak’s tempo is a notch faster. Though the sensibility cleaves close to realism, Graniak frequently gives us moments of contemplative grace; how a damp spiderweb can look like a parachute, for instance. Such moments might not forward the narrative, but they deeply enrich the film’s sense of time and location.
Foster, a deeply committed character actor who has been ably improving countless films for the past 20 years, doesn’t showboat in his lead position, but manages to elicit great empathy. His Tom is a kind man, under attack from within who can only flee; a spiritual brother to Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here, albeit with all violence removed.
But as we see more of them, we come to understand that it is the child who is father to the man. Tom is the stronger person; her love for her father taking precedent over her own desires. She feels every bit as responsible for him as he to her, perhaps more-so. Graniak teases a great performance from McKenzie; thoughtful, intelligent, but also achingly vulnerable. That quivering chin when she’s upset might just set you off, too.
Late in the picture there is a scene in which Tom is introduced to a beehive. She gets to see the insides of it and understand that she need not be afraid of it; that though this dense community might seem threatening, it isn’t, so long as you interact with it in a certain way. It’s a tipping point in the film and a fine representation of the sea change occurring in her own perspective. Tom has instilled in her an understanding that a return to civilisation would sting them. His is a didactic approach. But the world is full of variables and possibilities newly awake to Tom.
Leave No Trace can be viewed as a road movie; it is transitory and episodic. Rather refreshingly, there are no outright villains either. Social service workers are portrayed as dedicated, caring and well-meaning, the veterans Tom deals prescription drugs with are just as emotionally fragile as he is, while on the road and in rural micro-climates, the father and daughter consistently meet good people. Graniak’s film peers through the leaves at communities on the outskirts of the hustle and bustle of the 21st century and simply finds people; working class and neighbourly. Instead of reading as naive, it feels clear-headed. The compulsion to make dramatic hay out of the worst in people is absent. The film carries a PG certificate, confidently resting on the emotional investment conjured by Foster and McKenzie. A gamble which most certainly pays off.
It’s summer, World Cup season and the UK is presently experiencing a prolonged heatwave. Cinemas are quiet; beer gardens and beaches are busy. It’s exactly the wrong time for a quiet, introverted indie drama such as this to arrive. The screening I attended was disappointingly underpopulated. Leave No Trace is in danger of doing exactly that. Which would be a shame. This is a modest picture of immense wealth, and well-worth going out of your way for. If you can find the time and inclination you’ll be rewarded. Go and see it.