Sunday, July 15, 2018

In Theaters: LEAVE NO TRACE (2018)

(Canada/US - 2018)

Directed by Debra Granik. Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini. Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Michael Prosser, Isaiah Stone, Art Hickman, David M. Pittman. (PG, 109 mins)

"The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me."

In their first narrative project since 2010's WINTER'S BONE, director/co-writer Debra Granik and writer Anne Rosselini again delve into a largely unknown part of America and into an insulated world that exists far off the grid. Rather than the inherently dangerous goings-on in the meth-addled Ozarks with WINTER'S BONE, LEAVE NO TRACE is a quiet and compassionate character study of a loving but codependent relationship between a father and daughter where it becomes inevitable that the roles will have to change. Like a grittier CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, LEAVE NO TRACE centers on Will (Ben Foster), a military vet with severe PTSD, and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). They're deep in the forest in a national park in northwest Oregon, and it soon becomes apparent from the supplies and their daily rituals that they've made this spot their home. They make occasional trips on foot to the VA in nearby Portland so Will can get his ineffective medications, which he immediately sells to a homeless vet for groceries and other necessities. It's a rustic, simple life and father and daughter seem happy, but their idyllic existence is upended when police and rangers raid their tent after Tom is spotted by a hiker and notifies the authorities. Will is arrested for squatting on federal land and Tom is taken in by children's services, and once it's ascertained that she's not in danger (we learn nothing about Tom's mother other than she died when Tom was young and she has no memories of her), a social worker (Dana Millican) takes their case and tries to reintegrate them into society for Tom's sake. Kindly rancher and tree farmer Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober) reads about the pair in the newspaper and offers them a small guest home on his property in exchange for Will working for him, and Tom, whose aptitude test results indicate that she's further along in her education than students of the same age, is enrolled in school. She also takes an interest in a local 4H club and makes a new friend (Isaiah Stone), but restless and agitated Will can't adjust and isn't really putting forth the effort ("I think it would be easier if we tried to adapt," Tom tells her father). And so they hit the road, first going back to their old squatting grounds to find it a wreck, then taking a bus out of town.

Tom is unhappy about the decision ("I like it here...are you even trying?"), but goes along because she's the child. But now she's experienced some degree of social interaction that her father has chosen to avoid and the early bubblings of quiet resentment begin brewing over his making that choice for her. A cliched Hollywood product would have Tom rebel and act out, but Granik and Rosselini don't take it in that direction. Though Will makes numerous ill-advised decisions--including a trip deep into bitterly cold woods of Washington that proves dangerously exhausting to Tom--he loves his daughter and she loves him. She's fiercely protective of him but once an injury to Will forces them to temporatily settle in at a remote RV park managed by Dale (Dale Dickey, further cementing her status as the rural Melissa Leo), Tom welcomes the sense of belonging and community, especially among a group of people who also seem to be living in relative isolation from the world by choice but have found kindred spirits with one another (like much of the supporting cast other than jobbing vets like Dickey and Kober, these people don't seem like professional actors, giving the film an even greater sense of authenticity that alludes to Granik's other gig as a documentarian). The always-intense Foster turns in some career-best work here, playing Will as tightly-wound but never going off (again, a Hollywood movie would have him indulge in at least one total meltdown). He brings a low-key sense of nervous, ticking energy to any scene that takes place indoors, often conveying with total silence Will closing himself off and shutting down. He can't sit still in the house and he can't sleep in his bed. Neither can Tom at first, but she quickly grows acclimated to a "normal" life, which makes it even more heartbreaking when Will can't bring himself to recognize that and drags her away in an effort to slow down her sense of experience and independence, and hold off, even for a little while, the inevitability of losing the only stabilizing thing in his life.

If there's one thing for which Granik has come to be known, it's breakout performances by her female leads. 2004's little-seen DOWN TO THE BONE didn't make it far beyond the festival circuit, but still helped establish Vera Farmiga, and most famously, WINTER'S BONE was the film that put Jennifer Lawrence on the map and earned the then-20-year-old actress her first Oscar nomination. That trend continues with the remarkable performance of 17-year-old McKenzie, best known in her native New Zealand for the popular web series LUCY LEWIS CAN'T LOSE. As terrific as Foster is, it's McKenzie's Tom who's the heart and soul of LEAVE NO TRACE. Often speaking volumes with just a facial expression and saying nothing at all, McKenzie absolutely inhabits this character. Though their circumstances and surroundings differ, Lawrence's Ree Dolly in WINTER'S BONE and McKenzie's Tom are cut from the same cloth: wise beyond their years, an unconventional upbringing that seems perfectly normal to them, cautiously venturing into worlds they don't quite understand, and ultimately forced to be the grown-up when their parents can't or won't hold up their end of the bargain. This comes to a head in a confrontational but still-loving way in LEAVE NO TRACE's moving and emotionally devastating finale. The film takes a refreshing approach in that it presents Will as a flawed and damaged man with noble intentions, but it never judges him. Nowhere is this more poignantly expressed than in a subtle, almost throwaway moment when a social worker (Michael Prosser) comforts a discouraged Will over his giving up on a 435-question psych eval, pats him on the shoulder, and compliments him on the job he's done raising Tom and what a great kid she is. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael McDonough in Clackamas County's Eagle Fern Park in Oregon, and featuring an effectively minimalist score by Dickon Hinchliffe (OUT OF THE FURNACE, another film with a deft sense of location and local color), LEAVE NO TRACE looks to be this summer's indie sleeper alternative to the predictable blockbuster scene. Let's just hope it's not forgotten come awards season. It's the best film of 2018 so far.

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