Debra Granik’s long-awaited follow-up to 2010’s Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone proves that good things really do come to those who wait. Her third feature film is a stunning and quietly engaging father-daughter drama, one which centres on war vet Will and his 13-year-old daughter Tom. They live off the grid, deep in a public park in Oregon, where they forage for mushrooms, read books and survive on the supplies they can afford through the selling of Will’s meds. Society soon catches up with them in the form of park rangers and social services, who inform Will that living on public land is illegal and assign the two to rural housing. With this change of lifestyle comes paperwork, supervision and limitations that quickly exacerbate Will’s restlessness.
Based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, Granik and Anne Rosellini’s script is wisely economical when it comes to backstory and superfluous dialogue. It never spoon-feeds or settles for binary observations, especially when it comes to the social workers, who could so easily have been portrayed as pen-pushing villains. Nor does it stray into clichéd territory like Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, with which Leave No Trace shares a set-up. Instead, Granik’s film focuses squarely on the central characters, played to perfection by a reliably excellent Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. Foster shines in a series of small moments, especially during a psychological evaluation session that sees him bemused and progressively shaken by the rapid, mechanical churn of computerised questions and answering options. He hints at a vastness of trauma that seeps through the slightest of gestures and exhausted looks. Thankfully, the quality of his performance is never cheapened by the inclusion of military flashbacks or melodramatic breakdowns; it’s a compassionate and thoughtful portrait of PTSD that is bolstered by Michael McDonogh’s lensing, which emphasises a certain natural and meditative poetry to life on the fringes of society without trading realism for forced lyricism.
As for McKenzie, the young actress is a revelation, showing yet again Granik’s eye for talent – the filmmaker launched the career of the then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence in 2010. Both actors forge a powerful and nuanced onscreen rapport, which ensures emotional investment in their wellbeing and allows the audience to get absorbed by the film’s very deliberate pacing. It culminates in a subtly underplayed finale, during which Will accepts he is broken in a way his daughter isn’t, and an ending that will leave you with a lump in your throat. Don’t overlook what is thus far this year’s most essential watch.
Leave No Trace | Directed by Debra Granik (US, 2018) with Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie. Starts September 13.
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