Debra Granik’s latest offering is Leave No Trace, a movie every bit as haunting and memorable as her 2010 Best Picture contender, Winter’s Bone. Based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, this is a slow, thoughtful and affecting piece, a considered exploration of what it means to live outside society, how much pressure there is to conform, to opt in.
Ben Foster is Will, an army veteran with recurring nightmares and an aversion to bureaucracy. He lives with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), in the wilds of Oregon’s Forest Park, which – although not far from the state’s bustling capital of Portland – is a vast, unpopulated area, dense with trees, and far removed from the ‘civilisation’ embraced by the city-dwellers. Of course they have to venture into town sometimes – Will picks up his prescription drugs from the veterans’ clinic, then sells them so that he can buy supplies of rice and beans and chocolate. But essentially they are survivalists, sleeping in a small tent, cooking over open fires, foraging for much of what they eat. They read, they play chess, they fend for themselves. They also practise being invisible, enacting ‘drills’ where they try to trace one another, preparing for an inevitable attempt from the outside world to capture them and draw them in.
When that outside world does invade, however, it proves to be a strong adversary, with teams of police and tracker dogs; Will and Tom cannot escape. Reluctantly, they leave their camp, and undergo a series of psychological tests to determine where they should be placed. Everyone they meet is kindly and polite; they are treated well. But they are not allowed to live the life they choose, and must try to fit in, whatever they believe. A well-meaning farmer (Jeff Kober) reads about them in the press and offers them use of a small house on his land. In return, Will must work for him, pruning, chopping and packing Christmas trees, in a not-so-subtle metaphor for the way his own true nature is being curtailed. The serried ranks of fir are so very different from the dense, lush forest they have left behind, and Will is desperately miserable. Ben Foster’s quiet embodiment of misery is one of the best things about this film: on the surface, he is doing what he’s asked, drawing little attention to himself. But it’s no surprise when he packs his bags, when he tells Tom that they are moving on.
Tom, though, is less elated to be leaving. She’s a teenage girl; she loves her dad and enjoys her life with him, but she’s learning to appreciate other people’s company; she’s excited – if nervous – about starting school. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s performance is remarkable, as understated as Ben Foster’s, and devastatingly engaging. She doesn’t say much about how she feels, but it shows in her eyes, in her trembling chin.
At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story: Tom is growing up, growing away. And the life Will needs has little place for compromise; even a rural trailer park in Washington, run by the kindly Dale (Dale Dickey) is too structured, too populated for him to endure. So Tom is faced with a heartbreaking choice.
This is a gentle but fiercely intelligent study of what it means to be human and how we interact within our world. Will has been profoundly affected by the war he has fought in; he is a product of the society he now rejects. It’s not hard to understand how the simple beauty of nature is balm to his soul, and the cinematography substantiates that sense of wellbeing, the lush greenery embracing him and Tom in a verdant hug, as intimate and knowable as it is boundless and strange.
A lovely film, and well worth seeking out.