Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s first fiction feature since 2010’s masterful Winter’s Bone, is a movie that’s willing to whisper. If you don’t listen (and watch) closely, you might miss out on the deep wells of emotion beneath its placid surface. Like its two main characters—a father and teen daughter living off the grid in a lush forest park outside of Portland, Ore.—the film moves as if it hopes to go unnoticed.
Will (Ben Foster), a veteran of an unspecified military conflict who is still haunted by helicopter-themed nightmares, has retreated into the woods for quiet and solace, perfectly content to live life as a permanent camping trip. At the start of the film, his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is happy to be there with him. One of the first sounds we hear in the film is her pleasant humming as the two go about their daily chores: gathering kindling, planting herbs, collecting water. “It might take a while,” Will chuckles as they wait for some sort of solar frying pan he’s concocted to heat up the mushrooms they’ve gathered. They’ve got time.
On occasion, father and daughter also rehearse an escape plan in case someone was to discover their camp. Not long after, park police conduct a search of the area, and that plan fails them. Funnelled into the state welfare system, the pair is separated in order to be psychologically poked and prodded. Eventually, they’re reunited—but only if they agree to make a go of it on the grid.
That reunion is indicative of Granik’s formal approach. Will and Tom have been kept apart for a few days at this point, not knowing where the other is, so the moment they see each other is ripe for emotional exploitation. Yet Granik places her camera at a distance, on the far side of the lobby in which the scene takes place. In fact, the lobby has an open balcony in the middle looking down to the floor below, creating an even wider sense of space between us and the reuniting father and daughter. The choice not only underplays the moment (allowing the audience to more genuinely experience its significance), but it also respects the distance and privacy this unconventional family desires.
The movie moves as if it hopes to go unnoticed.
Winter’s Bone was similarly reserved, even as it, too, snuck up on you. In her breakout role, Jennifer Lawrence played another girl coming of age in a harsh world that time seems to have forgotten (in that case backwoods Missouri). McKenzie, as Tom, doesn’t make quite the same, forceful impression, but she’s playing a younger, more reticent character. It’s still a remarkably naturalistic performance, a portrayal of an observer who has learned to be a survivor by carefully observing her father—and who is now beginning to notice that not all his decisions might be the best ones.
As for Foster, he’s been gradually moving away from the unhinged, scene-stealing performances that marked his early career, and this might be his most anti-“Ben Foster” (and best) turn yet. To say he recalls Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, from First Blood, is no insult; it’s important that some threat of violence, lingering from Will’s military past, hovers over his interactions with “polite” society. Foster is also perfectly in sync with Graink’s formal approach, especially in the way he plays silences. When the authorities force Will to take a computer test that gives him three seconds to answer a series of unending questions, he’s quickly overwhelmed. The stillness Foster manages holds both a palpable sense of despair and the potential for a disastrous outburst.
Can Will and, by proxy, Tom, find a place in this exhausting world, where timed electronic beeps are the soundtrack rather than the soft call of birds? Might there be a place for them between those two extremes? Despite its Edenic opening scenes, Leave No Trace is not a pollyannaish ode to life in the great outdoors. Yes, there is a terrifying section in the middle, as Will and Tom are hitchhiking, that replaces those forest sounds with the audible onslaught of honking cars, screeching tires, and growling trucks. But there is also an equally frightening sequence where they seek shelter in a new forest and get lost as the freezing night sets in—Mother Nature as toothsome adversary, not welcoming bosom.
I won’t answer those questions, but I will point to a lovely motif in the film involving a beehive. (I’m not sure if this is taken from the source novel by Peter Rock or added by Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini.) Slowly approaching the buzzing boxes, Tom tells her father, “You put your hand over it, you can feel the warmth of the hive.” Scared as much at the prospect of being stung as he is by the concept of colony as community, he resists. Leave No Trace leaves you aching in hope that he’ll learn to reach out, in some way, for the sake of his daughter. That he’ll find a way of life that will both soothe his soul and prompt her to hum again.