Review: With ‘Leave No Trace,’ Filmmaker Debra Granik Revisits Themes of Female Power Years After Her Flawless ‘Winter’s Bone’
Sometimes female directors just seem to … disappear. I wonder why that could be?
Catherine Hardwick burst into prominence with Thirteen and helmed the first Twilight film, but rumors about her crying onset once seemed to cool down her career. Mira Nair, who directed the perfect and underrated The Namesake and the charming and underrated Queen of Katwe, hasn’t done much since no one seemed interested in one of Lupita Nyong’o’s best performances to date. It took four years for Sofia Coppola to go from The Bling Ring to The Beguiled after her Little Mermaid project never got off the ground; five years for Sally Potter to go from Ginger & Rosa to The Party; and four years for Desiree Akhavan to go from her breakthrough Appropriate Behaviour to this August’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. People don’t talk enough about Amma Asante, who directed the lovely Belle starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and whose upcoming Where Hands Touch is another Amandla Stenberg joint. I’m not even sure how long Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, her first film in six years, was in theaters, because it never seemed to come out near me. Let’s not forget that Brie Larson, who everyone got mad at for having the gall to say there should be more non-white guys in film criticism, never got a distributor for her directorial debut, Unicorn Store, which screened at TIFF last year. And I will scream into the void about JUSTICE FOR DEE REES AND MUDDBOUND forever.
It is with all those women in mind that I watched Leave No Trace, the latest from filmmaker Debra Granik, who directed the brutal, beautiful, and thoroughly unyielding Winter’s Bone back in 2010. The film was an introduction for Jennifer Lawrence’s ascension to the A-list, received a number of high-profile nominations (including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nods), and was one of the best-reviewed films of the year. Then Granik wrote and directed a 2014 documentary, Stray Dog, that doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page, and has now returned to feature filmmaking with Leave No Trace, another exploration of female power, matriarchal responsibility, and the impartial-to-humanity characteristics of our natural world. It’s an intentionally paced character study acted exquisitely by newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and a more-fragile-than-usual Ben Foster, and it’s a powerful piece of cinema from Granik that you should seek out.
The bones of this story are true: Granik and frequent collaborator Anne Rosellini adapted the Peter Rock novel My Abandonment, which in turn was based on a story in The Oregonian about a girl and her father who secretly, and illegally, lived for years in a nature preserve bordering downtown Portland. This is sort of like Captain Fantastic—another Bleecker Street release, like Leave No Trace—but not as quirky (I see you, Hot Dad Viggo Mortensen), and also sort of like this year’s A24 release Lean on Pete, but not as interested in the ramifications of inherited poverty.
Instead, the questions Leave No Trace dedicates itself to exist in a sort of Russian-nesting-doll structure of a community; the smallest doll is one person, who is then consumed by another larger person, who is finally taken over by the largest figure of all. As a child, you answer to your parents, who answer to a larger authority, and the chain of command, the delineation of power, keeps going up and up and up, a reminder of the littleness of your life compared with the greater whole. That is our modern society, and it’s almost impossible to escape.
But that’s exactly what Will (Foster, turning in the same level of performance as his extraordinary work in Hell or High Water) and his daughter Tom (Harcourt McKenzie), have done, living in a camp in a lush, mossy, gorgeous nature preserve outside of Portland. They gather brush and build fires to cook with; they collect rain water to drink and mushrooms and plants to eat alongside store-bought rice and eggs; and Will trades his prescribed painkillers to other veterans living on the outskirts of society for cash. She’s smart and self-sufficient; he’s a firm father but not a cruel one. Her eyes always search for his.
Tom has known no other life than this, but you get glimpses into what Will is running from: the sound of helicopters and planes overhead bring on nightmares, and his scenes at the VA show a deep resentment of the sort of submission that goes into everyday modern life. But when they’re discovered one day, their entire existence is upended, and they’re thrust into a version of the world Tom doesn’t really understand and Will patently rejects.
If two people have defined their entire identities around each other, who do they become when they are separated? Both Foster and Harcourt McKenzie handle these transformations phenomenally. Like his more understated work in The Messenger and 3:10 to Yuma, so much of the power in Foster’s performance is what he doesn’t say, like how his face collapses during a scene where he’s forced to take a test that asks him to rank his agreement with statements like “I seem to find it hard to imagine living a long life and fulfilling my goals” and “Things are turning out like the prophet said they would,” and in a later conversation with Tom that drives home his inability to exist in the world as it is. He can’t explain it, but he feels it.
And Harcourt McKenzie is a revelation, going from a halting way of speaking that makes it seem like she doesn’t have much practice doing it (“They just don’t understand that it was my home,” she says of the people who took her and Will away from the forest) to confidence and resolve when interacting with Dale (Dale Dickey, collaborating again with Grenik after her amazing work in Winter’s Bone), a woman who offers Tom and Will a place to say. Harcourt McKenzie seems to grow from child to adult over the course of the film, much like how we saw Lawrence’s Ree Dolly grow from big sister to independent matriarch during Winter’s Bone, and her performance is its anchor. Foster never breaks bad like John Hawkes did in Winter’s Bone, but there are similarities here between Will and Tom’s bond and the relationship that develops between Ree and Hawkes’s Teardrop, and what both of Granik’s films say about female strength in the face of male weakness is quietly subversive.
“We can still think our own thoughts,” Tom and Will say to each other, and Leave No Trace is an intimate portrait that questions from where emotional fulfillment comes—yourself, or the structure and love of a parent, or the acceptance and support of a community you choose. It’s a fitting companion to Winter’s Bone, and another deeply moving piece of filmmaking from Debra Granik.
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