'Leave No Trace,' Debra Granik's Superb Follow-Up to 'Winter's Bone,' Returns to Forgotten America
A man and a young girl are camping in a forest. Surrounded by tall, luscious green trees, footing their way through dewy ferns and bracken, the pair gather food, light a fire, cook their meal, and settle down to camp. Gradually, through a series of clues, you pick up that this young survivalist dad and his capable, sturdy daughter aren’t in the park for the weekend; they live here, with their handful of books, gas cooker and their rainwater catcher. Are they hiding? What secret keeps them away from society? In these initial scenes you get not only a sense of the bond between father and daughter, built up through actions, body language and a few exchanged words, but an understanding of how careful Debra Granik is in her storytelling; how confident in her ability to let events unfold without overburdening them with metaphors or sentiment.
The father (Ben Foster), we understand, is a recovering soldier with PTSD, who can no longer stand to live in society; he has brought up his intelligent and sensitive daughter well. Through a series of events, the pair eventually come to the attention of social services, however, and the bulk of the film’s story is taken up with their painful rehabilitation into normal civilisation, and the ways this tests the father-daughter bond. Debra Granik takes us through this with terrific sensitivity and attention to detail, and a loopily satirical eye for the oddities of small-town America. We see Will, the father, obligated to take a job, helping out on a Christmas tree farm; Tom, his daughter (played with great commitment and emotion by Thomasin McKenzie) meets young people her age, and bonds over competitive pet rabbit training. The two attend a church service, filmed with something like bewilderment, as the two outcasts attempt to understand the rituals and flag-waving around them. The film has a teasing eye for the absurd, which is visible in the pet names (a fluffy rabbit called Chainsaw; a dog named Willie Nelson), or in an astonishing scene of Christmas trees being airlifted by noisy helicopters and dropped on the ground in huge bundles near Will, triggering his disorder.
Eventually, Will and his daughter find themselves on the run again, but this time with their ties severely impacted, as Tom has found a taste for company and Will cannot abide it. Debra Granik derives so much tension from this dynamic, showing how it preys on the poor girl, and how close to abuse their situation has unwittingly become, as her loving father keeps her from a world that could do her good. Granik is aided in this by a tremendously skillful showing from McKenzie, who shoulders a lot of the film’s action and proves a perfect, tremulous foil for Ben Foster’s taciturn performance. McKenzie’s delivery is hushed and considered. Her voice is high-pitched; whispering: this imbues all of her lines with real doubt, and makes her so moving when she resolves to stand up to her father. The interplay between the two could not be bettered, as Foster wisely chooses to play second fiddle to this delicate performance, by keeping all his emotions inward, and hiding his vulnerability behind curtailed mannerisms.
There’s a lot to watch and enjoy in this film that takes the time to look at faces properly and that constructs a totally believable world of misfits and underdogs — the good people of trailer parks who live at a remove from the America we see on television. A beekeeper showing Tom her hive; two people playing a guitar duet in a forest clearing: these are the people that Granik gives her full attention to. There’s pleasure to be taken in seeing a world realised so convincingly, even as the story of a growing disconnection is playing out before our eyes. Granik’s film is political — of course it is — because it glances at the forgotten of America, the war-tormented and the dispossessed. If the world is unbearable to Will but inviting to Tom, it’s because Granik is so searching and so forgiving — her humanity enables her to see us at once as we are and as we could be.
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