There’s something special about director Debra Granik, a woman who can tell a story like the one in “Leave No Trace” with a certain type of understanding and grace. Her style is perfect for this material, a film that’s reminiscent of “The Florida Project” in that it gives a voice to folks whom society would rather ignore. This film is the textbook definition of intimate storytelling with its complex characters, hypnotic cinematography, and an overwhelming feeling of both despair and hope. This film affected me on a deeply emotional level, and it’s one of the very best of the year.
Former Marine Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), have lived off the grid for years in the forests of Portland, Oregon. Their idyllic life is shattered after they’re discovered and are put into a social services program. After clashing with their new surroundings, Will and Tom sneak out of their new home and embark on a harrowing journey back to their wild homeland.
It’s sad to think situations exactly like this are happening in today’s America, but the film never sensationalizes how society has failed our veterans. The majority of the film’s characters are invisible, unhoused, and living in the woods. To call them isolationists seems unfair: they simply find their own human connections through privacy. Who are we to say what defines a home?
It’s a positive thing if you see this film and think, ‘wow, I’m certainly fortunate to have so many things that I take for granted.’ A warm house, a big screen t.v., a reliable car — these are all possessions that make us comfortable. In this story we are surrounded by characters who have very little, yet they create their own sense of community.
The real anchors here are the two leads. Foster (who elevates every project he’s ever been in) lends an intense yet quiet desperation to a man with serious PTSD. The wisdom and sophistication in McKenzie’s star making performance is nothing short of breathtaking. The two have a natural chemistry and sincere rapport as they work and struggle together as a family, and the conflict that arises after Tom realizes her life doesn’t have to be her father’s feels so raw and authentic that it hurts.
This is a film that will frustrate some casual moviegoers as it is stingy with concrete answers and background on the characters and their motivations. Instead, you’re thrust directly into their world of living off the grid. You never learn the “why” of the story, but carefully placed hints are dropped along the way.
If you’re familiar with Granik’s previous work (“Winter’s Bone,” “Down to the Bone”), you’ll most likely admire her ability to establish a strong sense of place. Every last detail, from the peeling wallpaper of an abandoned trailer to the minutes-long stretches of silence to drops of icy rain, serve a purpose. Michael McDonough ‘s cinematography proficiently captures the harsh and dense Pacific Northwest forest where the pair reside.
The movie is quiet and contemplative in a way that’s so haunting, it sometimes feels as vulnerable as the characters. This is a powerful expression of what it must be like to live on the fringes of the American Dream.