Friday, July 13, 2018

Leave No Trace: Compassionate character study

Leave No Trace (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for dramatic tension

By Derrick Bang

Some films are anchored by powerful storytelling, others by delicately shaded performances.

This is one of the latter.

Hoping to evade well-intentioned welfare agents — and police — who are determined to
enforce the structure of a "socially normal" life, Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom
(Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) seek a railroad car they can hop, in order to escape the city.
Leave No Trace is another quietly intimate drama from writer/director Debra Granik, best known for 2010’s Winter’s Bone (which, it must be remembered, “introduced” Jennifer Lawrence to the movie-going public). Although lacking that film’s atmosphere of dangerous intensity, Granik’s newest endeavor — also co-scripted with Anne Rosellini, and adapted from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, My Abandonment — is no less compelling, with its thoughtfully sensitive depiction of people surviving on society’s margins.

Rock based his novel on a 2004 article in The Oregonian, published after a man and his adolescent daughter were discovered in Portland’s Forest Park, where they had spent four apparently content years in a homemade shelter. Local authorities, sharing conventional society’s wariness of such “fringe” behavior, attempted to “mainstream” the duo; the rational behind such a decision — and its aftermath — shaped both Rock’s book and Granik’s absorbing big-screen adaptation.

Her film can be viewed as a close cousin of 2016’s Captain Fantastic, with its depiction of a stubborn single father attempting to raise his six children under similarly off-the-grid circumstances. But Leave No Trace eschews the flamboyance of a patriarch as charismatic as Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortensen; the relationship here between Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) is much gentler and understated.

The dynamic also is different. Despite her youth, Tom is equal parts peer and offspring. She’s able to challenge her father, albeit cautiously; he listens, sometimes acquiescing. Even so, he remains a taciturn closed book. If her questions cut too close to the bone, he turns them around.

“What’s your favorite color?” she impulsively asks, during what seems a mutually candid moment.

“What’s yours?” he replies, after a moment of silence.

The film’s captivating first act — beautifully lensed by cinematographer Michael McDonough — depicts what has become a daily survival routine, in this gorgeously carpeted forest setting: the search for edible vegetation; waterproofing repairs to their shelter; the gathering and shaving of wood, for fires over which to cook their meals; the application of clothing and additional blankets, as nighttime temperatures drop. Their adeptness at these many tasks bespeaks considerable experience, and we wonder precisely how much. Months? Years?

It’s not all work. They play chess, Will coaching his daughter in the game’s complexities. They read whatever books come to hand. Tom speaks well, is intelligent and reasonably well-rounded, given the circumstances. When they need basic supplies and provisions, they carefully depart the park and walk into the city, where Will has established a rather novel method of making money.

Their discipline, while shopping, is uncomplaining: an essential distinction between “want” and “need.”

It becomes clear that he’s a veteran: haunted by a past that erupts during nightmares, by day silently enduring the trauma of PTSD. Foster’s mostly silent performance nonetheless speaks volumes: His eyes reflect a degree of pain that can’t be articulated. The subtlety of his performance is sublime; watching his face relax just a fraction, when basking in the warmth of his daughter’s presence, is like witnessing a glorious sunrise.

Tom’s mother is a distant memory, at least to the girl. It’s just another detail that Will can’t bring himself to discuss. We’re left to assume that she died, but even that isn’t certain. 

New Zealand-born McKenzie’s handling of the waif-like Tom is transcendent. The girl understands her father’s limitations from long experience, and is sensitive to his moods; that said, her gentle voice always coaxes a response. She “becomes” the adult at times, responding to his vulnerability; she grounds him. 

He, in turn, has been teaching her every useful thing he knows.

McKenzie’s Tom is curious, observant and calm: sensitive to the world around her. Like her father, she has learned how to behave when around other people, to minimize looking and sounding out of place.

The two don’t exchange words of love, although the devotion is deep and mutual; instead, they exchange quiet tsk-tsk utterances from tongue and palate, like the calls of cautious forest birds.

Discovery is inevitable. Suddenly thrust into a well-meaning social welfare system that nonetheless operates with the blunt force of a hammer smashing a window, the two are gently but insistently separated: forced to answer questions, to confront bias and expectation. To everybody’s astonishment, Tom is healthy, obviously well cared-for, and academically superior to her age group.

(Given the time required to nurture a film from concept to public presentation, its arrival on the heels of President Trump’s pernicious forced separation of border-crossing parents and children is mere coincidence ... but the indictment is impossible to ignore.)

What happens next — and how this affects the father/daughter dynamic (breathe easy; they are quickly reunited) — becomes the heartbeat of Granik’s film.

There are no villains here, in “the system” or elsewhere. Indeed, it’s refreshing to embrace a drama that doesn’t feel the need to jack up tension with overstated “bad guys.” That said, there’s no shortage of suspense; we’re at the edge of our seats half a dozen times, heart in mouth, deeply anxious over what’s about to happen to Tom, or Will, or both. 

Granik and Rosellini make us careabout them, and of course that’s the point: Lifestyle choices don’t define a soul.

The story’s “moral,” as such, is a question that remains open. Will and Tom are thriving, content, devoted to each other and (in Rock’s words) “not distracted by all the things that distract us.” Should they be judged for making such a choice? At the same time, we’re challenged to consider that they might be better off — happier — if they lived in a house, and Will got a job, and Tom went to school, in order to have a better shot at becoming ... well, whatever she wishes to become.

The latter point isn’t trivial. Will may be withdrawn, but he’s no less observant than his daughter. He perceives the woman poised to emerge from her coltish body.

I was reminded, as this film slides into its third act, of the telling line from 1973’s A Touch of Class, when Paul Sorvino wonders aloud about married best friend George Segal’s intentions regarding his affair with divorcée Glenda Jackson: “Do you love her enough to give her up?”

Leave No Trace’s contemplative atmosphere is further augmented by a sparse but effective score from “outsider folk” composer and multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchliffe, who also scored Winter’s Bone. His work here is a rich blend of acoustic genres, and Granik also includes a terrific live performance — during an informal outdoor gathering — by Greenwich Village folk legend Michael Hurley and Oregon-based Marisa Anderson.

Granik’s approach is slow, and some viewers likely will chafe at this film’s 109-minute length. That’s a long time for what occasionally feels more like mood piece than narrative. Even so, Granik and Rosellini’s script has distinct chapters and beats, all of them telling. And if the final fade feels only partially resolved — do take note of the spider webs with which the film is bookended — well, that’s life. Things aren’t always tidy.

And answers — and choices — are neither obvious, nor easy.

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