Parent-child relationships are often difficult to portray on film, simply because, well, most of us are pretty familiar with our own. “Lady Bird” was successful for so many reasons, but chief among them was the delicate rapport between Lady Bird and her mother, drawn so completely that calling one’s mother after watching the film became something of a phenomenon. On the other side of the coin, one of last year’s worst films, “The Book of Henry,” featured a super-duper strange mother-child relationship (amid a slew of other errors) that forcibly removed any viewer from empathizing with any character.
Count “Leave No Trace,” the latest film from Debra Granik and her first narrative film since “Winter’s Bone,” in the former camp. Set against the lush green pinewood forests of Oregon and Washington, “Leave No Trace” is a patient and heart-wrenching tale of father and daughter living off the grid, in the wilderness and on the run from authorities that wish to incarcerate them in ordinary domesticity. Ben Foster (“Hell or High Water”), sporting a nearly shaved head and a full beard, plays Will, who lives with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”), in the liminal space of society — in a tent in the public lands of Portland, and, since Will is a veteran with PTSD, on the margins of public consciousness.
“Leave No Trace” finds a satisfying middle ground between gritty, which could describe “Winter’s Bone” and certainly what audiences had been expecting of the film, and cartoonish, which is now how the similarly themed “Captain Fantastic” will be understood. Will and Tom are capital-r Real, with a relationship that is something like lightning in a bottle. That the two sitting quietly together, wordlessly in each other’s company, is compelling cinema is a testament to Granik’s ability to create carefully constructed characters and drama. The screenplay by Granik and frequent collaborator Anne Rosellini (“Stray Dog”), adapted from the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, uses a simple functionalism to slowly drip details about Will’s past and create tension that feels both natural and enthralling.
Will and Tom, on the run, provide larger symbolism for the greater veteran experience. We know little of Will’s past, only that he is a veteran, he involves himself in an illicit drug market among other vets and he has, on at least one occasion, a PTSD-induced nightmare involving an airplane, weaved into the film only sonically. Later, we see a newspaper headline that further resolves the mystery, but there’s still much left that’s uncertain. And yet, that’s all we really need to know to understand Will. In Portland, he and Tom are crushed by the churning gears of bureaucratic machination. In the wilderness, they’re free.
Foster deserves recognition, but McKenzie, with a stoic face and a weary slight monotone, steals the show. She is truly excellent as Tom, who is independent-minded yet empathetic, conscious of her father’s place in the world, and her own as well. She lights up the screen with a measured confidence that can take years to develop. The film’s score, with its eerie violins that soar and scrape above ambient whisperings, create a tension that somehow feels at peace with itself. Granik is back.