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Movie review: Leave No Trace 

Debra Granik's long-awaited followup to Winter's Bone is quiet and affecting.

click to enlarge Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster stick together in Leave No Trace. - SCOTT GREEN
  • Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster stick together in Leave No Trace.
  • Scott Green
Debra Granik has made only three features in her career, six or seven years between each, but that small catalogue displays a filmmaker of confidence, depth, grace and uncommon quiet, with a genuine, respectful sense of place. (Kelly Reichardt is also this kind.) Where most directors would rush to fill the space, to make the cut, Granik rests in the moment, watching.

Ben Foster stars as Will in Leave No Trace, as a father who is living, illegally, in an Oregon park with his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). Where the mom is or was doesn't comes up. How long they've been living on the fringes is also in question, but it's long enough that Tom has never been to school. He teaches her how to build fires, make shelters, cook food, store tools and various other outdoor survival techniques. They're soon caught in the park and forced back into the real world by social services. He's itching to get out; she likes the idea of a bedroom and friends and maybe joining 4H. But soon they're on the run again, and things get bad.

There's less dread here than in Granik's last film, Winter's Bone—which featured some untoward people and an unfortunate scene with a chainsaw—but there's still a foreboding darkness, despite the lush Oregon landscape photographed with reverence by Michael McDonough (it's green, but not bright). Whatever's driving Will to run to the edges of society is not fully clear to Tom, who is 13—her brief time in a house with a friend has opened up new possibilities she'd like to explore. When it does become obvious—though never explicitly spoken, Granik has so much respect for her audience's intelligence—it creates a space between Will and Tom that neither of them may be able to close.

As she did with Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone (Lawrence's first Oscar nomination), Granik has created a breakout role for McKenzie, an 18-year-old New Zealander. She's equally cautious, capable and curious—a scene in which she's shown a beehive is particularly effervescent—with a small-but-sturdy voice. She has a gravity that diminishes the fear (a little) you feel for a young girl being dragged around the state into the paths of truckers, pill-poppers, grizzly farmers and who knows who else (to their credit, many of the people she encounters ask outright if she's in trouble). Hers is a name you will hear a lot of from now on.

There's not one second of humour in Leave No Trace, but it isn't depressing. The father/daughter relationship, potentially icky in another director's hands, is so loving and singular that you actually want them to succeed in this unsustainable lifestyle, even if—even before the film starts to imply as much—you know they can't.
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Vol 26, No 21
October 18, 2018

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