FILM REVIEW – LEAVE NO TRACE. With Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dana Millican, Dale Dickey. Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini. Directed by Debra Granik. Rated PG for thematic material throughout. 109 minutes.
They say a movie is only as good as its villain. But what about one with no bad guys? Is there any drama to be found in a picture about people doing their best under damnable circumstances to try and help each another out? Will audiences sit still for a film in which ordinary folks are just trying to be decent and kind? The sleeper success of director Debra Granik’s enormously moving LEAVE NO TRACE suggests we might be starved for just such a thing. It’s a sad movie that’s somehow still full of hope. You leave with your heart aching but not quite broken, dismayed but not despairing.
Granik’s surprise 2010 smash “Winter’s Bone” provided a career-making showcase for a then-unknown actress named Jennifer Lawrence, and “Leave No Trace” offers the same for the remarkable young Thomasin McKenzie, who stars here as thirteen-year-old Tom, coming of age in a campsite off the grid in an Oregon National Park with her PTSD-rattled dad, Will. Played by an uncharacteristically undercranked Ben Foster, his haunted eyes hint at untold traumas as father and daughter seclude themselves away from the outside world, living off the land in isolation from modern life and all its noisy intrusions.
Unfortunately, they’re also trespassing, at least in the eyes of the law. But when Tom and Will are discovered by some well-meaning police officers and social workers we’re miraculously spared the plot machinations and misunderstandings that would have driven a more Hollywood take on the material. I honestly kept waiting for their case officer (affectingly played by Dana Millican) to turn inexplicably evil or intolerant for no other reason than to goose the drama along.
Instead, “Leave No Trace” admirably avoids histrionics while following these characters through a situation that inevitably becomes impossible. Folks keep reaching out to Will and Tom with great understanding and generosity, trying to help them acclimate, but there’s just something in his brain that got broken over there. Will can make a good show of things for a little while but he never quite does get the hang of making small talk, or even sleeping indoors. Credit the movie for never giving us any specifics as to what exactly happened overseas, relying on Foster’s anguished gaze and subtle flinches in lieu of exposition.
One of the most delicious hams in modern movies, Ben Foster has been making memorable meals out of the scenery as far back as TV’s “Freaks and Geeks.” (My favorite part of 2016’s terrific “Hell or High Water” is when he starts a fist-fight at a gas station simply by staring.) What happens to him here is similar to Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or Lesley Manville in “Phantom Thread” – the thrill when a chronic over-actor underplays and as a viewer you can feel everything they’re holding back reverberating through the tiniest of gestures. (See also: Pacino, Al. “The Godfather.”)
McKenzie has an even more difficult role, remaining devoted to her dad while also opening up in the presence of peers. We watch Tom come into her own the way we’re watching the actress become a star and take command of the movie, even if Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rossellini lean a little too hard on the symbolism when she meets a friendly beekeeper and suddenly everybody starts talking about hives and colonies.
“Winter’s Bone” was pretty overwrought in that department as well. But “Leave No Trace” actually has more in common with Granik’s superb 2014 documentary “Stray Dog,” which followed a Missouri trailer park manager along on a motorcycle pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and in the process upended every possible preconceived notion you might have made about the people portrayed onscreen.
She’s stacked the supporting cast here with first-time actors and their scenes exude a grubby, hardscrabble authenticity. You might think you have these folks pegged at first glance but chances are they’ll keep surprising you with their kindnesses. As far as visions of America go, “Leave No Trace” might not exactly be 100% believable, but it’s awfully welcome right now.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.