Filmmaker Debra Granik constantly strives to infuse her magnificent works with authenticity, eloquently capturing tremendously moving portraits of her subjects. She often grounds the narrative in very real, intensely relevant aspects of marginalized societies. Whether it be focusing her lens on fringe communities (as in WINTER’S BONE) or overlooked and unappreciated people (like the Vietnam Vet in STRAY DOG), she brings to light issues that have receded into the dark. Her latest, LEAVE NO TRACE, is no different. This adaptation of Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment is a soul-stirring portrait of a father-daughter relationship that leaves a noticeable footprint on the audience’s heart. It illuminates the plight of those struggling with PTSD, deep diving into how this disease affects not only the person stricken, but also those around them. Coupled with two astoundingly brilliant performances, Granik’s film is amongst the best of the year.
Will (Ben Foster) and his teen daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) have lived a relatively undisturbed life off the grid deep in the wilderness of Oregon. They have their system down pat, rehearsing drills, maintaining supplies and rationing food. Will has even managed to find a way to give back what little he has to his less-than-fortunate peers. However, their idyllic world is threatened when social services finds out and splits the pair, mandating they live a more regulated, monitored lifestyle. In their new surroundings, the dynamic duo’s relationship is put to the test.
Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini have painted a portrait of a crippling psychosis, gifting us with a cinematic cousin to CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. Both films are connected through the similar thread of fathers taking their family off the grid in order to protect them from the assumed horrors of the real world. Both spotlight a dad doing the best he can. Both feature educated, high-functioning kids – children who are, at minimum, book smart. And both deal with the element of psychological trauma (in CAPTAIN, it’s the recently deceased wife who was suffering). It’s easy to connect the two thematically, yet each of these films has a distinct identity.
LEAVE NO TRACE, however, makes it a little easier to set judgement of the parent aside by immersing us in Will and Tom’s psyches. We clearly see the pain and heartbreak emanating from both sides of the relationship. The push-pull of their struggle is shown and felt throughout every corner. The gravity of their pressing situation is always prevalent, showing that danger is a constant in what Will’s mind translates as safety, yet he’s powerless in changing. This film bleeds intimacy and emotional drive. It’s not interested in artificially manipulating the audience’s feelings for narrative convenience, or for the purpose of building to a sweeping, grand gesture. Granik goes for the gold, honing in on their precarious situations (like when they’re separated by DSS, or when they camp in the woods during a storm).
Perhaps the best aspect is witnessing the heartbreak and triumph of the performances by two highly skilled actors. Foster constantly amazes in whatever film he’s in (yes, even in WARCRAFT), but his work bringing Will’s internal drive outward is truly outstanding. At times, he wears his heart on his sleeve, stripping the words down to emotive, nuanced actions. McKenzie gives a star-making performance. Her vulnerability, honesty and subtlety cut right to the quick. She inhabits her character’s anguish and yearning like a second skin. She makes the character come alive and feel immediate.
In a year full of films that explore the precious nature of father-daughter dynamics, Granik’s feature is a standout.
LEAVE NO TRACE is now playing.