"Please, don't take me from my daddy..."
And so it begins with Debra Granik's latest film, the masterful Leave No Trace, a film that I've been unable to shake since watching it and a film that beautifully and authentically captures what it takes for us to survive against everything that threatens to tear us apart.
Based upon a series of news articles that inspired the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Leave No Trace is most assuredly one of 2018's best motion pictures, a recipient of Indy-based Heartland Film's Truly Moving Picture Award and, indeed, one of the most truly moving pictures I've had the pleasure of seeing this year.
Debra Granik is one of this generation's most authentic, inspired filmmakers, whose Winter's Bone introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world and whose only follow-up to that film has been the feature doc Stray Dog, a fact that has baffled those for whom a voluminous body of work has become more impressive than a masterful body of work.
You'd be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of filmmakers whose first two narrative features have been as impressive and as masterful, there's that word again, as Granik's marvelous creations.
I have seldom been witness to a film that so skillfully weaves together elements of desperate bleakness and uncommon humanity as is the case with Leave No Trace, a film that shows not just respect but actual love for its characters and for those who live off-the-grid because it is quite literally the only way they know how to survive emotionally and physically.
As was true for the story upon which it is based, Leave No Trace locates itself inside a Portland, Oregon's Forest Park, where we meet Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, 13-year-old Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), whom we know nothing about other than what we see and what we experience as they chop wood, play chess, hunt mushrooms, and even play games of hide-and-seek amongst their isolated village of makeshift tarps and functionally useful propane tanks.
They live here, we surmise. But why? How? What is this world?
The opening sequences of Leave No Trace are practically wordless, though I may have just been imagining this as I was so completely engrossed in the little casual intimacies and familial bonds being put on display as we learned nothing and everything about the life that has been created by Will and Tom.
Will and Tom live a hard life, but it is not an unhappy life. It is not a life without love. Indeed, it is easy to conclude that, just perhaps, this may be the perfect life for them. Protected by this wall of green that they've come to call home, Will is able to both fend of his undefined demons from the past while parenting Tom in a way that is uncommonly tender and devoid of distraction while Tom, despite what our logic may tell us, is growing up to be an emotionally and physically healthy young woman whose love for her father is practically a fairytale.
It is clear that Will has demons, though Leave No Trace never defines them, an undeniably conscious choice by Granik to allow Will to avoid the labels that society would so easily thrust upon him. Will and Tom occasionally leave the park, either to retrieve groceries or for Will to sell prescription drugs to a small village of people living in a tent city on the park's fringes. Other than these limited occasions, they have built a life for themselves within the park's vast confines.
Of course, in some ways, I suppose, we all know where this is going. Will and Tom will be discovered, their peaceful world disrupted by well-meaning yet ultimately misguided do-gooders who are not portrayed here as the usual institutional caricatures but as good people trying to do good things but who can't possibly do the right thing.
Ordinary folks can't imagine that the way things were for Tom and Will may very well have been the right thing, or at least the right thing for them.
That's the thing. You know? Love is universal, but love isn't common. It's different. It's different for everyone. We all need to experience it differently. We all feel it differently. We all need it, but we all need it differently.
Granik gets that. Oh my, how she gets that.
Refreshingly, though, Granik, along with co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini, doesn't demonize the do-gooders. The people who try to help Will genuinely want to help Will - the police who first discover him, the welfare workers who first investigate him, and the open-hearted community members who offer him work and shelter all want to see him succeed.
But, they want to define that success differently.
Will simply can't survive in their world.
The same is true for Tom, though she's younger and she's more impressionable. Introduced to a world she's never seen, she's timidly curious and maybe even a little bit frightened. Yet, those she encounters are for the most part kind from the social worker who realizes that against all odds she's remarkably well cared for to the other teens in a home for girls where she is temporarily placed while "the system" tries to figure out the hows and the whys and the whats to everything that it has learned about this mysterious yet seemingly perfectly fine father and daughter.
There isn't a false note in Leave No Trace.
You never look up at the big screen and think to yourself "Ha! The Hollywood ending!" or "The market friendly twist!" Instead, Granik and Rosellini have crafted an intelligently created, beautifully told story that is simultaneously aching to watch and one of the most mesmerizing familial love stories to come across the big screen in years.
Ben Foster, one of this generation's finest character actors, gives his best performance to date as Will. If an Independent Spirit Award nomination or an Academy Award nomination doesn't follow, then the awards should be banished forever. There's a social critique here, perhaps more a social observation, as it becomes obvious mostly in less dramatic ways that Foster's Will is a wounded, perhaps PTSD-impacted veteran whose usefulness to society has dissipated and whose presence has been allowed to fade from our awareness. Will can't possibly cope with the newfound world where others want him to live, yet Foster so insightfully captures his internal aches battling with his paternal instincts that I sit here sobbing even remembering it. Foster's is easily one of the year's absolute best performances.
There will be much made, as there should be, of the fact that Granik discovered and brought the world Jennifer Lawrence and now introduces us to yet another gifted beyond her years actress in Thomas Harcourt McKenzie, whose similar turmoil rests in the fact that she grows fond of a world she's never known while possesses what feels like, truly feels like, an immeasurable and unbreakable love for her father.
There is one line in the film, one freakin' line, that may be one of the most devastatingly beautiful lines I've ever heard in a film and Harcourt McKenzie delivers it with such quiet normalcy that it still reverberates through my psyche'.
Dickon Hinchcliffe's original score is completely and utterly immersive, while Michael McDonough's lensing is remarkable in the way he bathes each vastly different world in equal measures of love and uncertainty. Hinchcliffe has quietly built a name for himself in several indie projects, including Granik's Winter's Bone and such projects as Locke, Rampart, and the feature doc Project Nim, while McDonough has become a familiar presence in British television.
In what has proven to be a remarkable year for cinema and we're only halfway through it, Leave No Trace is, without question, one of the very best films of the year.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic