Film Review: Leave No Trace

Debra Granik, director and co-writer of 'Winter's Bone,' is back with another—slightly more low-key, but still riveting—story of “the other America."
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Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace begins with the matter of survival that lies at the core of all of her films. Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) gathers wood and feathers wet kindling while Will (Ben Foster) skillfully banks their campfire. Utensils appear, a pot, then eggs. In their small shelter beneath a lean-to, their movements are spare, unconsciously calibrated, like those of longstanding partners. Will and 13-year-old Tom live in a wilderness park in the Pacific Northwest. In the evenings, they contend with dog packs, pushing the animals away from the sides of their tent. Will hears helicopters in his dreams. When he stirs, Tom awakens him and asks about her mother.

If Will is the expert survivalist and teacher, Tom, from whose point of view the film unfolds, is the family’s gentle caretaker. At first, it is not apparent why father and daughter live in the park, but Will’s nightmare speaks to a longstanding trauma. In the morning, he interrupts Tom’s foraging with the call of “Drill!.” She scurries beneath the forest’s large ferns twice before her father approves of her hiding place. Granik reveals only the area around their mountainside campsite in the opening sequences; no character backstories are provided, nor is the mother’s absence explained. Shifts from scene to scene are so seamless that there is the illusion of real time. The camera’s medium distance also intensifies the feeling that life is unfolding before our eyes.

Granik is best known for Winter’s Bone (2010), which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini from the book by Daniel Woodrell. It is set in the Ozarks and also features an unusual female protagonist (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who struggles to keep her family together. For Leave No Trace, the screenwriting duo adapted Peter’s Rock’s book My Abandonment (2010), a fictionalization of a true story about a Vietnam veteran and his daughter who lived in Forest Park in Portland, Oregon. Granik received the book from one of her producers. Leave No Trace, its title a double entendre for survivalism and the disenfranchised Americans it profiles, was shot on location, near the actual setting, in and around Portland.

Shortly after the opening scenes, Will decides it is time for a jaunt into town. Tom has been complaining of not having enough to eat. On the path through the wood, she retrieves a seahorse pendant; later, she is spotted by a park visitor as she sits atop a hill, reading about the tiny fish. The authorities soon arrive, and Tom and Will are taken to a shelter. It is then that Granik’s skillfully conceived mise-en-scène becomes apparent: The drabness of the shelter is in sharp contrast to the complex, virid tones of the forest and the serried, consistently mossy green landscape of the tree farm where Tom and Will are placed by well-meaning social workers. It is a cruelty only the daughter and her father grasp.

Literally and figuratively, the farm is an antipode to the wilderness park. In their trailer, the gift of the religious do-gooder who owns the farm, the exigencies of survival subside, and the quiet brilliance of Foster and McKenzie’s performances surface. For the first time in their lives, walls separate father and daughter, and there are hours to fill. The home is anathema to Will, but he tries, for Tom’s sake, to work on the farm and to teach her to ride a bike. While Tom adapts, befriending a young neighbor who invites her to a 4H meeting, she soon realizes that her father is unable to live indoors.

Granik’s female gaze (and that of Rosellini) is felt in the choice of a girl-driven narrative, as well as in the way the director never objectifies Tom. Several situations in the movie are unnerving, including the budding friendship of the male neighbor who keeps Tom out late, and a rescue in the woods by a man and boy who are strangers to her; each time, Granik seems to purposefully minimize the potential for anything other than what would happen in such circumstances in real life. The strangers are kind—the boy senses Tom’s need for company, and the rescuers simply do what is necessary.

In keeping with the female gaze, Tom’s quest for identity in Leave No Trace is not a sexual awakening, the kind that characterizes male “coming-of-age” stories. She may be “homeless” in the eyes of other girls at the shelter, and poor by American standards, but she has also never been buffeted by the malice of other children. Tom was spawned in the protective shell of her father, like the seahorse fetuses that grow in the belly of the male of the species. She is confident and self-aware. In that father-daughter relationship, Granik questions patriarchal notions of family, and in Tom’s upbringing, the class divisions in America. All of them disproportionally affect women and girls and prevent ill-fitting veterans like Will from earning a living—not that Will aspires to the American dream, nor has he taught Tom to accept it. When in the end she tells her father that “the thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” he replies, “I know.” It is not the severing of a bond but, rather, a moment of individuation.

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