Director Debra Granik is primarily known as the director who introduced a young Jennifer Lawrence to the world in 2010 with the very fine backwoods crime drama, ‘Winter’s Bone’ (adapted by Granik and creative partner Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell’s novel). Finally, she has returned to feature films with ‘Leave No Trace’, an adaptation of novelist Peter Rock’s 'My Abandonment', which was itself inspired by the true story of a veteran and his young daughter who were discovered living in a makeshift tent in Portland’s Forest Park.
A father, Will (Ben Foster, ‘Inferno’, ‘Warcraft: The Beginning’) and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’) are living an isolated existence “off the grid” in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon. Though they occasionally stray into the city for supplies, Will (a war veteran suffering from PTSD) feels completely removed from society - aside from teaching his daughter low-tech survival skills (collecting mushrooms for food, squeezing the water from moss), he and Tom run drills in preparation for any human intrusion. However, this doesn’t prevent him from providing his daughter with a more conventional education, either.
When Tom is spotted by a jogger, the pair is rumbled by the local authorities and their campsite demolished. Social services (refreshingly presented, like everyone else in the film, as sympathetic) attempts to provide them with formal housing - a social worker handling their case (Dana Millican, ‘I Don't Feel at Home in This World’) brings them to a friendly Good Samaritan who gives Will work on his Christmas tree farm, and Tom meets a local boy who has a nice pet rabbit. When Will balks at this new lifestyle, Tom slowly begins to see the shelter she herself affords her troubled father.
As they hitchhike from location to location and meander through the woods of Oregon and Washington, there’s the trajectory of a chase movie in the pair’s escape from civilisation. However, the heart of the drama lies in the perceptible shifts in Tom’s view of the world. While she is passionate about animals and learning to adjust to a more social existence, Will’s traumas keep him isolated and struggling to conform to a new lifestyle. Eventually, something has to change in the dynamic of their relationship.
Covering some of the same territory as Matt Ross’ ‘Captain Fantastic’, Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’ is a low-key character study that is even less flashy than ‘Winter’s Bone’ (despite both films sharing actress Dale Dickey). Dialogue is minimal and a lot of Tom’s character development occurs via her meetings with the people encountered along her travels (shades of Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild’). Granik has a palpable empathy for the backwoods characters that exist on the fringes of American society, who live poor and close to nature - even Will, despite his delusions and the danger he puts his daughter in, is treated with respect and understanding.
Granik has a palpable empathy for the backwoods characters that exist on the fringes of American society, living poor and close to nature - even Will, despite his delusions and the risks he puts his daughter in, is treated with respect and understanding.
To shoot a film so steeped in naturalism, Granik reteamed with ‘Winter’s Bone’ cinematographer Michael McDonough, and there’s very little artifice to the whole proceeding. The forests look lush, green and dense, in stark contrast to the busy cities and drab, enclosed offices. This is coupled with a sensitive score by Dickon Hinchliffe.
Ben Foster, usually overly intense and mannered, plays his role with quiet restraint. Will loves his daughter but hates confinement, and Foster makes the audience aware of the conflict this puts him through. This is the second time Foster has played a soldier with PTSD after Oren Moverman’s ‘The Messengers’, and it's a credit to his acting abilities that he turns in another nuanced yet completely different performance.
Granik is very talented at working with young actresses, and McKenzie, all pent-up anxiety and welling emotion, turns in a break-out performance. Smart, kind, curious, thoughtful and principled, Tom is a hugely likeable protagonist - McKenzie’s acting makes it easy for the audience to become invested in her plight.
Simultaneously haunting and yet overflowing with hope, ‘Leave No Trace’ is a beautiful film, telling a story of a daughter and her father that speaks truths.