In the eight years since Winter’s Bone‘s release, the star of the film, Jennifer Lawrence, has gone on to be one of the most successful in Hollywood. It truly was a breakthrough role in a great, beautifully shot film and it was what first brought her to my attention. But what about the director of that film who made it look so great and similarly got an awards worthy performance out of John Hawkes? Since then, Debra Granik has released only a single film, the little seen 2014 documentary Stray Dog, and nothing else after what should have been her breakout sophomore film (her debut being 2004’s Down to the Bone). With Leave No Trace, Granik finally returns for that narrative follow-up and with it, breaks the “Bone” naming convention of her films.
Based on Peter Rock’s book My Abandonment, Leave No Trace follows a father and daughter living in secret in a large park outside of Portland, Oregon. They’re resourceful, have their own garden, collect rain water, and supplement themselves with trips into town where the dad (Will, played by Ben Foster) makes some extra scratch selling off pills he gets from the VA. His military service and PTSD is a constant background element of the film and driving element of his behavior, but the film wisely leaves it there instead of forcing it out into the open for big dramatic scenes. Their idyllic existence is disturbed however when the daughter (Tom played by relative newcomer Thomasin McKenzie) is spotted by a jogger and they are forced from their home.
From here the film takes an almost picaresque approach as we move between small stories as our two leads try to find their place, forced to start conforming to society. Supporting characters come and go as we are quite often left with the film as a two-hander. I was nervous that at this point the film was going to set itself up as just another Gifted. A mediocre reintegration drama starring a non-conformist dad (or father figure) and smarter than normal child where the ham-handed debate between what is normal comes to the fore, but the film is much smarter and subtler than that. The film’s quiet (literally in the case of the minimal score) and content to move at its own pace with real lived in characters. The drama is mostly muted and there are little bits of humor thrown in throughout to keep things from getting too dour.
That dourness is certainly aided by the ever-present overcast and rainy weather of the northwest United States. The cinematography is beautiful and returning cinematographer Michael McDonough (who besides Winter’s Bone also shot Albert Nobbs and Starred Up) continues to show how well he and Granik team up to shoot and depict rural settings. It’s far lusher than the gritty Ozarks of Winter’s Bone and it’s also shot far more lovingly too. If there’s one problem with the movie it’s that it really does seem to romanticize poverty.
I had my reservations going in, but the movie does just about everything right. It’s impressive in the way that it takes a cast full of people (including the always welcome Dale Dickey) that are all likable and makes it clear that they just want to do what is best. Foster does so well with a role in which most of the acting is internal and McKenzie has a very good breakout performance which in many ways makes her the lead of the film. Its slow and purposeful, but not a single scene feels wasted and it never drags. Leave No Trace is an exceedingly well made and satisfying movie that is at once sad and affirming.