There’s no finger-pointing in Debra Granik’s latest film, but a discreet and powerful message in between the images.
A man and his daughter live alone in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. They gather food, tend to their camp, and he teaches her how to better cover their tracks to hide from park rangers.
It’s with this quaint simplicity that Leave No Trace kicks off. The father, Will (Ben Foster), is an army vet haunted with PTSD, recurring nightmares and all. His daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), is young and curious like all teenagers, even though her life is far removed from anything that is considered ‘normal’. It is obvious that there is love between the two, the kind of love that we immediately sympathise with. The audience is never put in a position to judge Will, nor pity Tom.
Eventually, reality comes crashing in, and their simple, albeit unconventional, life is put to a halt. They are found and forced to re-enter society. We watch as they attempt to live in a house, get a job, attend church, and make friends. This proves to be easier for Tom, whose curiosity and naivety lets her approach others with ease. Will, on the other hand, is jaded with the darker aspects of life. Still plagued with PTSD and unease toward strangers, he has trouble readjusting to their new life. Having personally felt the dehumanisation of veterans, he’s constantly disappointed in the fabric of modern society.
No matter how many times the protagonists tell each other “we can still have our own thoughts,” the sad truth is that they can’t. We watch as the new lifestyle eventually cleave the two of them apart.
Although the film deals with the father/daughter relationship, the central character of this story is Tom. While her father sees the world as a collective, oppressive experience, Tom takes it in one person at a time. When they go to church, Tom avidly listens to the priest’s sermon. Her father bitterly remarks that the act of going to church is purely a means to keep up appearances to greater society. As the film progresses, Tom finds herself connecting with every single person in the community, while her father slowly descends into an increasing isolation. In a particularly gentle moment, Tom meets a beekeeper that tells her how bees won’t sting unless they have to, and if you have earned their respect, you can hold them without consequence. She later passes the knowledge to her father, hoping the subliminal message is heard.
Both actors excel in their roles. Ben Foster’s style has always been sincere, the kind that can convey sadness or redemption with a flick of an eyebrow. He proves that he deserves the spotlight with his nuanced performance. But it’s newcomer Thomasin McKenzie that steals the show. The 17-year old Kiwi has an eerily mature demeanour for such a young actress. Tom is a hard character to play: neither childish nor developed, it’s a role that demands the sort of control that only comes with years of experience. McKenzie fits the role like a glove.
It’s surprising that eight years have passed since director Debra Granik’s last feature Winter’s Bone. Though the film is mostly remembered for introducing us to a young Jennifer Lawrence (and, in my opinion, still her best role), it was Granik’s careful eye that propelled her to be one of the most exciting voices in Independent cinema. Leave No Trace picks up right where she left off, without missing a beat. She’s honed her style to find a perfect marriage between pace, tone and tremendous social commentary.
Leave No Trace is the kind of film that looks at society with both disdain and hope, represented perfectly in Will and Tom. The film believes in the power of people, albeit not in the direction that we as collective are taking. It looks at the human need to find a place in society, and what we are willing to put on the line to find one.
The performances by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. We’ll be sure to hear see more of her in the next couple of years. But it’s Debra Granik who makes the strongest statement, one that is aptly critical of our modern society.
Emotional journeys like this are rarely so rewarding.
★ ★ ★ ★
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