Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin Mackenzie, Dale Dickey
Length: 1hr 59m
With Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik helped to launch the now-stratospheric career of Jennifer Lawrence; now, with new film Leave No Trace, she has helped showcase another young talent in the form Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie. In an assured and arresting film, Mackenzie shines as Tom, a girl raised in the woods by her father, played by the more experienced but no less impressive Ben Foster.
The film is for much of its run-time a two-hander, portraying a father-daughter bond that is tested to extreme limits by society and its rules. We meet our two leads at their makeshift home in some public woodlands. Both father and daughter are industrious, skilled and quietly happy with their existence. It does not take long, however, before the cracks and pain lurking behind this peaceful life are exposed. Tom’s mother, presumably dead, is mentioned fleetingly and movingly, while the duo’s “drills”, consisting of practising running away and “leaving no trace” suggest a fear of being found. These fears are well-founded as before long the police/social services find the pair and here begins the dramatic meat of the film; as they try to adapt to their new circumstances and fight to keep life as they know it intact, conflict predictably arises between Tom and her father.
For anyone who has seen the Viggo Mortensen-starring Captain Fantastic, this might sound quite familiar; in both films a single father fights to keep his chosen way of life for both him and his children, with the children thankful but curious as to what “normal” society holds. The two films are, however, very different beasts. What makes Leave No Trace a more serious and moving film is a deeper insight into why this father is so insistent on keeping his way of life. Ben Foster is superb as a traumatised ex-marine, who simply cannot escape the psychological scars of war.
Granik is tonally in very careful control of this difficult material. There is humour here, yes, but for the most part things are tightly focused and sparse. Cinematographer Michael McDonough does nothing spectacular, with the film at-times feeling like a nature documentary, but it is nevertheless a consistently beautiful film. It is beautiful in the natural world it shows, and it is beautiful in the intense father-daughter relationship at its heart. Be warned, however, that this same relationship, come the end of the film, may absolutely break you.