Leave No Trace Leaves a Huge Imprint upon Viewers

Leave No Trace (2018)
Directed by Debra Granik
Bleecker Street, 109 minutes, PG

Looking for the next John Sayles? Debra Granik might, in fact, be better, as she avoids Sayles' need to tick PC boxes and her characters have considerably more depth.   

Granik's Leave No Trace is a strong contender as the best American film of the year. Have you ever heard of a film receiving a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? This one did. Its only flaw is that far too few people have seen it. This could be because Granik is an uncompromising director who steers clear of forced happy endings and simplistic right/wrong scenarios. She is, after all, the director who gave us Winter's Bone, which got my vote as best film of 2010, and not coincidentally launched the career of a then little known actress named Jennifer Lawrence. Without Winter's Bone, Lawrence isn't Katniss Everdeen, and she would have been at best a bit player in films such as Silver Linings Playbook or American Hustle. She certainly would not have become the highest paid actress in Hollywood.

If there is any justice, what happened to Lawrence will befall young Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, the co-star of Leave No Trace. We meet her in the thick-growth rain forest near Portland, Oregon, where she and her father Will (Ben Foster) live as survivalists. By the world's standards, "Tom" and Will are homeless trespassers within a sprawling public park. That's not how either of them would describe themselves. Tom's mother died when she was too young to remember her and she is deeply bonded with her father. Will is a PTSD veteran who simply can't fit into regimented society. He exhibits symptoms of being a sociopath, but he's no psychopath; he has a conscience and loves Tom deeply. She is his best "buddy" and his tangential link to the broader world. Will and Tom live a back-to-the-garden existence in which they practice wild crafting, foraging, camouflaging, and survivalist drills designed to hide from those who would reveal their woodland camps. When they need provisions they can't find or make, they walk into Portland, where Will visits the VA for pain pills that he promptly sells. Then it's back to the woods. This is one aspect of the film's title: the desire to live beyond civilization's notice.

American society is not, however, kind to those who wish to live like Will and Tom. Shouldn't Tom be in school? Forget the fact that Will's private tutorials place Tom well beyond the levels of other 13-year-olds. It's not a spoiler to say that Will and Tom will endure several coerced-but-necessary attempts to integrate into society. Granik deftly contrasts state on nature mores with those of organized society, and she doesn't glamorize one over the other. At one point Will is working on a Christmas tree farm and we watch him slowly burn over the wasteful consumption of natural resources, the regimen of work, and lost independence. There is a scene of a sacred dance inside a church that is cringe-worthy and raises questions about which way of life is more Edenic. Tom adjusts a bit better, though she is drawn more to a 4-H kid who raises show rabbits. When Will and Tom bolt for Washington State, it's akin to a Biblical flight into the Wilderness. Circumstances will eventually lead Will and Tom to an RV community that's about as off-the-grid as one can get and still be considered part of society. But can either of them adjust to any sort of rule-bound living?

This is an astonishing film. Foster gives dignity to those suffering from PTSD. His nuanced performance plumbs the various ways in which trauma is made manifest; his is a quiet malady that somehow is more affecting than clichéd Hollywood tropes in which a vet "snaps" and goes rogue. Will knows he's troubled, but his desire is to leave no trace. I can only compare his final choice to that of James Allen in the 1932 classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

As good as Foster is, Ms. McKenzie is better. She's so convincing as an American teen that it surprises to learn she's a New Zealander who buried her accent. * She also skillfully navigates playing a 13-year-old—she was 17 when filming began—especially those moments in which we see her poised between childhood dependency and adolescent identity formation. Her shift toward autonomy comes at us in dribbles, not a melodramatic burst. When she tells her father, "What's wrong with you is not what's wrong with me," she does so with such poignancy and tenderness that it rips out your heart. She also has great physical poise. In Leave No Trace, she seems long, lithe, and lean, though she's actually short of five and a half feet.

Let me also sing the praises of Dale Dickey, who plays an RV park resident named Dale. You may know her for her role as Ree, the ominous nearly feral mountain woman in Winter's Bone. Dickey has a plastic face that allows her to wordlessly convey a wide array of emotion—from deep caring to cut-the-bullshit. Give Granik credit once more for casting good actors for small roles. A final kudo goes to cinematographer Michael McDonough for making the forest and weather so palpably real that we are tempted to personify and capitalize Nature as if it were a character on its own.

Rob Weir

*If you've seen Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), Thomasin played Astrid, a young girl living in Lake-town, which was destroyed by Smaug.

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