FILM REVIEW: 90 minutes in the woods with ‘Leave No Trace’More Info
Leave No Trace
Director: Debra Granik
Staring: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster, Dale Dickey, Isaiah Stone, Dana Millican, Jeff Kober, Ayanna Berkshire
(“Leave No Trace” is now showing at The Triplex Theatre in Great Barrington. Click here for show times and tickets.)
The opening shot in director Debra Granik’s lovely, understated masterpiece Leave No Trace is a lingering close-up of a spring green trace of moss. With that, we are transported to the forests of the Northwest, and the camera pans out. A man bearing kindling hums (“You Are My Sunshine”) as he tramps through the fresh ferns; a teenage girls hums (“You Are My Sunshine”) as she tramps. Back at their campsite, under a tarp, she finds the wood they’ve found is soft, and good for feathering. They season their hard-boiled eggs with salt they keep in a little sliding box for mints. They gather up edible greens. They collect rainwater in a receptacle at the center of a tarp. They try to cook wild mushrooms by the sun. It’s not clear how long they’ve been there, but it’s clear the woods is their home, and the woods seem to make a good one.
Not all of the action in the movie takes place in nature, but even in a social welfare office, or trailer home, nature is all around us. Will, devoted father to main character Tom, is a gentle vet of an undisclosed war, who sells his medications and is traumatized by the sounds of helicopter propellers, as he was, presumably, by most of the “normal” day-to-day American life that’s lived in a house and worked in a team. Sitting at a sterile computer station, the wallpaper behind him is of his vivid, beloved forest home, the only place he feels normal. There Will struggles to take a 435-question True or False test on his emotional health. (I wake up rested and peaceful most mornings.True. I have nightmares or troubling dreams. Silence.)Among many such small, poignant, unforced and well-earned details strewn about the landscape of the film, the clash between forest green wallpaper and robotic test questioner voice struck me most.
Granik wrote the screenplay for Leave No Trace with her frequent collaborator Anne Rossellini, with whom she worked on Winter’s Bone, the 2010 film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. They based it on the 2009 novel My Abandonment, by Peter Rock, who became obsessed with the real life news story from 2004 of a father and daughter discovered living in Forest Park, adjacent to downtown Portland, Oregon. When that story went cold, Rock decided to finish it himself.
The film hews fairly closely to the brief news accounts available of the pair. A runner comes upon their camp deep in the woods and alerts authorities. They discover a well-educated teenager who has been homeschooled using old Encyclopedias (and in real life a Bible) and fed well enough to avoid cavities, living with her veteran father. They’re taken in by thoughtful and kindly social services, and set up in a house together. The dad is offered a job. Then they take off. In real life, the pair is never heard from again. In the novel, Rock imagines what might have happened after their escape, as Tom engages with the forest and world in new, more knowledgeable ways.
One divergence from the news story is that actual father, who called himself Frank, was a devout Christian. The pair attended services in Portland every Sunday. Will and Tom in the film are not portrayed as Christians, though they’re obliged, as indebted guests, to attend a bizarre fundamentalist service featuring angel-dressed dancers waving banners around to loud rock music. This scene now feels to me unfair, knowing the true story, since the real father clearly took great comfort in, and strength from, his faith.
Will the character is very much secondary, though, to Tom, who’s this mother’s idea of a strong female character. (In at least one interview, actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie wore a white T-shirt proclaiming “Strong Female Character.” I’m taking my two pre-teen daughters to see it next.) The filmmakers found their natural fit for Tom in Wellington, New Zealand, from where she sent in an audition tape gently holding her neighbor’s rabbit. McKenzie, said Granik in an interview, is “not a jaded individual” and was used to seeking peace in nature. I found her performance, as I found just about all of the story, simple, convincing, and real in ways I’ve become unaccustomed to seeing in movies, or seeing or hearing or reading most anywhere, in fact.
This is Tom’s heroine’s journey, whose climax isn’t accompanied by Hollywood-y winds, earthquake, or fire. She is not the rebellious kid I was expecting, whose encounter with civilization would inevitably inspire a cell phone, makeup and boyfriend, followed by a big to-do in the kitchen with dad. (Trained as I am in the way of American films, I was half-expecting to watch her stab her father in the back.) No, no, no. It’s a small, quiet moment when, in the narrow entrance to the trailer she’s just put a rent deposit down on, Tom stands her ground and tearfully tells her father, who’s packing up his rucksack to hit the trail yet again, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”
This moment is earned because up until then, she has let her dad lead where he will as he chased his own mysterious demons, and she’s never wavered in her trust, even as her toes and fingers tingle with the approach of frostbite. Her understanding had time to grow, space to evolve. Despite their extreme circumstance, their one-in-a-million situation, the rare, wise truth of, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me” speaks of what we all struggle with as we grow up, isn’t it?
Granik, in an interview with Deadline Hollywood, said, “I’m very interested in areas of the country that I don’t know about. We’re born onto a very specific path, and you can’t know about someone who lives in a different region, different country, different background, so I’m always drawn to stories about people’s survival, and their methods of survival…their knowledge, their savvy, their heart…” Her Wikipedia page says she’s working on a film version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s memoir of life as a minimum-wage worker, Nickel and Dimed. My selfish wish is that Granik worked a little faster; she’s released only four movies in fourteen years, and these days I’m hungry for artists who focus on the heart.
Below is a video of an interview with actress Thomasin McKenzie and director Debra Granik: