It can only be coincidence that just a few weeks after the modest success of First Reformed, the summer of superhero-fueled carnage is again interrupted by a quiet, contemplative film about human behavior, one that says more by saying less. Leave No Trace is director Debra Granik's first film since the acclaimed Winter's Bone eight years ago. It is another intimate study of the kind of people who fall out of the range of most movies, though it has a slightly more optimistic tone.
Based on Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment, Leave No Trace is the story of father-and-daughter team Will and Tom, first seen living more or less comfortably off the grid in a makeshift tent in Oregon's aptly-named Forest Park. When they're discovered by the outside world and pulled back into society, they begin a journey that changes their relationship and raises questions about how and where (and why) people choose to live.
Just as Will and Tom have survived by making a second nature of silence and a quick awareness of their surroundings, Granik tells their story through long quiet spells and observation of environmental details. As she follows them in and out of their wild world, she shows a natural landscape that remains self-sufficient but is slowly slipping away, showing felled trees, teams of loggers and the detailed process by which pine trees are chopped, processed and wrapped in plastic wire to be sold for Christmas display. In contrast, when the pair return briefly to Portland, Granik turns the city into a harsh terrain of steel and wires that could pass for the modernist utopia of a 1930s science fiction film, even taking advantage of the real but retro-futuristic air tramway that serves the city's waterfront.
The story is filtered through the perception of thirteen-year-old Tom, played by New Zealand-born Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. McKenzie, who is actually about five years older than her character, gives an extraordinary performance, visibly transforming into a mature, self-aware adult as she gradually learns to navigate the chasm between her back-to-nature upbringing and the traces of the unnatural world around her.
Tom's awakening guides the film, but neither she or Granik lose sight of her father's chosen path and his uneasiness. Ben Foster plays Will with a subdued, trapped-animal nervousness, and you can sense real disgust when, during a brief moment of confinement, he complains about "wearing their clothes and eating their food."
Tom realizes that her father is an outsider, a cultural anomaly, but neither she nor the film pass judgment. Though Granik provides just enough information to draw a few conclusions about his past — he's a veteran and a widower — she avoids easy psychoanalysis. His unrest is purely existential.
Granik is equally scrupulous about avoiding any trace of sentimentality or melodrama, even of anything that could be considered traditionally confrontational. Leave No Trace seems cool and casually observant for most of its 109 minutes, but that's misleading.
The film pulls the viewer into the lives of Will and Tom and their natural-yet-strange cultural collision so carefully that the ending sneaks up with a surprising emotional resonance. Granik and her cast so skillfully establish the way Tom and her father rely on each other that you can almost feel that weird combination of both traditional family bonds and a shell-shocked cat's cradle of spiritual co-dependency.