(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.
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.