Leave No Trace

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/02/18 03:36:16

"Another trip into the unseen fringes with the maker of WINTER'S BONE."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: It's been far too long since Debra Granik's previous feature, "Winter's Bone", although it's important not to ignore "Stray Dog", the documentary she made a few years ago, which followed a group of veteran bikers, as likely being a major influence on this long-awaited follow-up. Its details echo in this very different story, although not so blatantly that what she and her cast do here ever feels like mere transcription - it's a terrific little film that makes one hope the industry will give her what she needs to make its like more often.

This one opens in a state park in the Pacific Northwest, where widower Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter of about fourteen, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), are camped out and have been for some time. Both are intelligent and resourceful, and occasionally go into town to convert the benefits and medication Will gets at the VA into resources, and regularly drill concealing their camp so that they will not be discovered. It can't last forever, of course, but when they are found, the social workers make great effort to minimize the difficulty adjusting - a fellow veteran (Jeff Kober) not only offers Will a job, but a guest house where he and Tom can live without being overwhelmed. It may still be too much for him.

The time Granik spent with the bikers of Stray Dog likely gives her a better-than-average handle on the details of Will's PTSD, especially in terms of what helps and how much; people who have seen the previous movie will have two smiles on their face when a few small dogs show up as the film goes on. She and co-writer Anne Rosellini leave enough details laying around that a general picture can emerge but avoid moments where one person ever tells another what happened or what to do. Will's state of mind isn't going to be patched by reverse-engineering the origins of his trauma, and there's not some solution that applies to those afflicted generally. Granik builds a story that highlights how internal Will's guilt, shame, and fear is while still finding ways to keep things somewhat active.

As Will, Ben Foster gives a performance that's not nearly as showy as it could be even though his illness is never concealed; the tight reign Will keeps on his demons does not hide them. For all that Will can come across as being on pins and needles, Foster makes sure and Granik make sure to show that, even if Will is twitchy under the surface, he's trained to be focused. Will is sad as much as nervy, with a sort of selfishness that elicits pity as much as worry. That sense of being on edge is often reflected in Tom, although actress Thomasin McKenzie seems to grasp that Tom's nervousness is learned rather than inherent, and as Tom's curiosity and kindness, and growing sense of self, eventually asserts itself, McKenzie is able to show her emerging as a fascinating your woman.

Her progression toward adulthood and potential independence is just as fascinating to watch and a marked contrast to Will's fear of the world, and it winds up a fascinating inversion of how the audience first encounters the pair: One of their first interaction has Will admonishing his daughter not to go through their food too fast, to which she replies that she's hungry, and Granik has them play it like he's being sensible and pragmatic and she's being wasteful, but as the film goes on, Tom and the audience come to understand that it's natural for a kid to be hungry, and for more than just food, and the rationed diet and experience Will gives her can't sustain her forever. The environments of the film reflect Tom's journey, as the lush and edenic park gives way to the still pleasant colors of the tree farm before plunging into dark, cold territory and a final act that adjusts the template and mood carefully, with an eye to how things may never be truly simple again.

It likely won't be all bad, though; one reassuring thing that sinks in as the film goes on is that there doesn't seem to be anybody in the movie who is not trying to help as best they can, though some have a bit more certainty in how they go about it than is perhaps merited. Granik is careful with how these good intentions and the world that sometimes belies them, making for a beautiful film full of smart details that serve its often loose, episodic story well without shouting a metaphor - the mileage she gets out of Tom discovering beekeeping, for instance, is subtle but masterful.

"Leave No Trace" is independent film at its best, poking around unseen corners to tell a story and create emotion without the need to be all things to all people. It's got same affection for the dirty parts of rural America and the fringes as Granik's previous work, something the cinema never has enough of. Let's hope it isn't quite so long before we see another feature like this from her.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.