Director Debra Granik returns to narrative features with something fairly akin to her Oscar-nominated thriller Winter’s Bone with the moving family drama Leave No Trace. As she had previously, Granik examines family dynamics and the hardships of caregiving for people on the outside fringes of American society. The system doesn’t help her characters, but they still manage and maneuver around its confines. The most distinct similarity between the films is that they feature a stellar debut from a young actress, this time with Thomasin McKenzie in an understated and entirely absorbing performance.
But to just reduce this new film to overly simplistic comparisons is to misread the holistic heart of Granik’s newest effort. Leave No Trace has more emotional aims, and much more to observe about the limitations we (as individuals and as a larger society) to care for one another.
McKenzie plays the young Tom, a girl who lives in the wilderness of a Pacific Northwest state park with her veteran father, Will (an oceanic Ben Foster). As told by the nervy tics and sudden jolts in Will’s physicality, he is plagued by PTSD and a corrosive depressive mental state despite the idyllic and peaceful life he has created in the woods with Tom. When the are discovered by the authorities, they are forced to reintroduce to the constraints of society. As Tom begins to find a life of her own worth living, the once-contained family unit begins a slow reckoning with everything Will has attempted to escape and their own inability to be everything that eachother needs.
Granik crafts an emotionally reflective visual experience to the film’s narrative proceedings that lingers past the film’s immediate drama. While capturing Will’s encroaching paranoia, the director uses stillness to speak volumes and capture a world where our ailments are incapable of hiding in plain sight. Our harder truths are forever in plain sight no matter how we suppress or convince ourselves otherwise, and Granik visualizes these notions with striking staging in the natural wilderness and the antiseptic environments of developed American society. In presenting a family on the precipice of sustainability, her images always look as if they could be broken at any moment.
This makes the film immersive on several layers – the sociocultural, the physical, and especially the emotional. Leave No Trace confronts the intersectionalities of homelessness and the psychological resources available to veterans without ever losing sight of the human element. And yet on the same hand, Granik veers away from easy solutions or simple rage at the system. Empathy abounds, especially when there are limitations to our capabilities.
And without positioning for our tears or reaching for easy sentiment, the film is a satisfying and surprising emotional experience. McKenzie and Foster are separately wondrous, both heartbreakingly quiet and believably expressive as they try and fail to communicate their needs to one another. Their chemistry together however is symbiotic, both performance difficult to disentangle especially as the narrative pulls them apart. The spiritual kinship alone is reason to marvel at the film, one that gives many stunning acting moments.
There have been few tears at the movies these year as exhaustively well-earned and rewarded as those that come from Leave No Trace’s straightforward storytelling. It’s tough but kind filmmaking, rigorous but gentle, as giving and taxing as the elements that nuture and cage the family of its story.