*** out of ****
(for thematic material throughout)
Released: June 29, 2019 limited; July 13 wider
Runtime: 109 minutes
Directed by: Debra Granik
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Isaiah Stone, Jeff Kober
(You can listen to Charles Elmore and I discuss Leave No Trace on Episode 10 of “The Bad and the Beautiful” podcast)
Debra Granik’s films are primarily about experiences, not ideas, and what it’s like to walk in the shoes of people on the margins.
Not that her films are devoid of ideas or themes. On the contrary, they emerge slowly and organically from experiences. Granik’s innate empathy understands that to know someone (and something) is to focus on praxis, not scripted hypotheticals, and to immerse in reality rather than theory, philosophy, politics, or the academic.
The result is commonly referred to as a “slow burn”, something that is patient and deliberate. More specifically for Granik, her films are observational, often quiet and still, almost a whispered poetry. Leave No Trace is, to use an ironic metaphor, all of that on steroids.
It’s been eight years since Granik’s low budget surprise Best Picture nominee Winter’s Bone (which launched the career of then-teenager Jennifer Lawrence). Leave No Trace returns to rural poverty, but this time it’s of a very different sort.
Winter’s Bone lived in the meth addiction trap of the rural Ozarks, but in the Pacific Northwest of Leave No Trace the poverty is intentional, an off-the-grid choice by a father and his teenage daughter; the wife/mother has passed away. They are poor, but more so by society’s standards than their own.
The dad, William (Ben Foster), is a military veteran suffering from PTSD. He doesn’t self-medicate with alcohol or drugs; separation from society is his coping mechanism. It may keep him sober, but the stunted effect is similar; he’s running from his tortured anxieties, not liberated from them.
Yet he’s a loving father; “good” would be more relative, considering the context. He cares deeply for his daughter, who goes by Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, another young female find for Granik), and she loves him equally in return.
They are very protective of each other, surviving nomadically in the deep, dense woods of public land, with supplies and shelter they can carry on their backs. Only when necessary do they step into society to stock up on bare essentials.
It’s an existence they’ve mastered yet one that ultimately proves fragile. I won’t detail how it begins to unravel, but it does, yet not in the typical overwrought contrivances. Instead, it’s in the kind of mundane, predictable challenges that seem inevitable. The key here, in this story, is that they come at a time when Tom is old enough to start to want something more.
How this father and daughter navigate those challenges is what makes Leave No Trace singularly special, and tender. Tom does not hold (let alone express) any anger, bitterness, or spite toward her father for her upbringing. She cherishes him, and them.
It’s from her love and admiration for her dad, as well as an intuitive understanding of what he suffers from, that Tom slowly looks to test the boundaries of breaking free, not out of rebellion but with respect and sensitivity. McKenzie imbues Tom with a selfless grace yet a stern resolve, in a way that still stays true to her own character’s innocence and uncertainty.
Foster, whose career is hit-and-miss with occasional lapses into Method melodrama, internalizes this ex-soldier’s pain, fighting to control and contain the demons rather than spiraling into psycho-emotional meltdowns. William’s conscious self is his role as a dad; his subconscious self is where the unresolved trauma swirls. Granik, too, works to suggest William’s PTSD through circumstance and subtext, not overt contrivance.
Leave No Trace crescendos softly – with poignancy, not intensity – but always with resonance, and a clarity of the high personal stakes involved. It also, unintentionally, ends up having a relevance to the current border crisis of parent-and-child separation, much more so than the actual border crisis movie (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) that’s currently in theaters.
The narrative drive would have improved with a bit of trimming and a slightly increased propulsion, but these are minor quibbles. The climatic moment of truth packs as much raw emotional power as any this year, beautiful in its heartbreaking generosity, earned by every little moment that builds up to it.