This piece is by guest writer Max Wink
If 2016’s Captain Fantastic and 2010’s Winter’s Bone were to have a movie child, the result would be Debra Granik’s latest feature, Leave No Trace. Much like Captain Fantastic, this film is about a family that has isolated itself from society, but while Captain Fantastic explores the quirkily entertaining parts of this unconventional lifestyle, Leave No Trace infuses the premise with the serious realism of Winter’s Bone (which was also directed by Granik). The result of this combination is an emotional journey that surpasses the greatness of both of its “parents.”
The parallels between Granik’s works go beyond the tragic tone, however, as both of them have stellar lead performances from young actresses. Thomasin McKenzie plays Tom, a teenage girl who lives alone with her father, Will (Ben Foster), in an Oregon forest preserve, and she delivers a performance as impressive as the one that launched Jennifer Lawrence into stardom eight years ago. McKenzie’s sensitivity is what draws the audience in at the start of the film, but it is the strength she shows along with her sensitivity that drives the emotional arc forward throughout the film.
After a crucial moment early on in which Tom and Will are removed from their forest campsite, the story’s themes of isolation begin to reveal themselves. At its core, Leave No Trace is an exploration of isolation told through the relationship of a daughter and her father. Granik’s greatest skill as a storyteller is her ability to use a single relationship as the vehicle for examining multiple forms of isolation: societal, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. Those three layers develop naturally through the contrast of Tom and Will once they return to modern society. Tom is greatly influenced by the titanic shift in her way of life; she realizes that maybe she likes living with other people despite her father’s insistence on separation.
While McKenzie’s performance is what connects the characters’ emotions to the audience, it is Ben Foster’s performance that deepens those emotions. Foster’s acting has never received the recognition it deserves, so if audiences don’t finally realize what a gift he is after watching him here, I don’t think they ever will. He shows us hints of Will’s hidden insecurities without immediately laying it all out in the open. This plays perfectly off of his daughter’s—and our—struggle to understand why he hates living around other people so much.
Granik intensifies that struggle’s already powerful impact by shooting Tom and Will in multiple ways at different points in the film. When the two of them feel closer to one another in a scene, she shoots them so we as the audience can feel that closeness too. The reverse is also heartbreakingly true when separation begins to form between them. On top of her ability to use her camera as a reflection of the characters’ relationships, Granik also displays her aesthetic skills with the beautiful images of the Pacific Northwestern wilderness.
With the exception of a couple scenes between Tom and a teenager she meets, the story never falters, and even in those scenes, Granik’s ability to sensitively display the lives of people with real problems and real emotions still shines through. Filmmakers often ignore the existence of people like Tom and Will in the world, but Granik embraces them. She shows that they’re as beautiful and as deserving of stories as anyone else.