Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Alyssa Lynn, Ryan Joiner, Ayanna Berkshire, Isaiah Stone, Michael J. Prosser
Written by: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, based on a book by Peter Rock
Directed by: Debra Granik
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material throughout
Running Time: 109
Date: 06/29/2018

Leave No Trace (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Woods and Services

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Filmmaker Debra Granik launched actress Vera Farmiga onto the movie scene with her remarkable Down to the Bone (2004) and did the same for Jennifer Lawrence with the equally remarkable Winter's Bone (2010). Now she's set to make a star of young Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace, Granik's outstanding new film, her first feature since Winter's Bone.

Playing thirteen year-old "Tom," McKenzie does not give a showy performance. She's so quiet she hardly opens her mouth when she speaks. But she's centered and certain. At the film's beginning, she lives with her father, Will (Ben Foster), in the woods. Actually, it's a public park, and they must be on their guard, as it's illegal to camp there. But they have their routine down. They share a hard-boiled egg and use the shells to fertilize their garden. They hunt for wild mushrooms and cook them. Will prefers to light a fire with his flint, but she can convince him to use propane when kindling is too wet.

They sleep in the same tent, but their relationship is close and loving, not creepy. They are happy here. They are not homeless. This is their home. They occasionally walk into Portland for food, and Will collects drugs from the V.A. hospital and sells them for cash. They run drills to avoid being caught, but this time, the police show up with dogs, and they are forced out.

They are placed into a temporary housing situation, forced to fill out forms and go to church, while Will spends his days working on a Christmas tree farm. They have a kitchen and plenty of food, and they're warm, but something is missing. However, Tom begins to settle in, making a friend or two. But Will decides he's had enough and plans an escape.

It's impressive how gentle Leave No Trace is; it's rated PG and has no moments of shocking violence or any kind of explosions, either physical or emotional. Yet Granik generates genuine tension throughout as these two worlds collide and begin to intermingle. The world that we all take for granted, i.e. houses, jobs, cell phones, driver's licenses, etc., is completely alien to Will and Tom, alien and excessive. (The first thing Will does in their new home is pack the TV away in the closet.) They don't need any of this stuff. Yet, in the third act, Tom begins to need things. She begins to need friendship and human interaction, and she thrives on new input, such as when a beekeeper shows her the inside of a hive. She and her father's symbiotic relationship has begun to crack, and she is growing up.

The movie is populated at the edges with folks that seem to be from these places, rural and woodsy. (Granik's camera seems to thrive on being outdoors.) Even if they seem odd at first, the movie paints them as sympathetic villagers that help one another without question. Leave No Trace is also filled with animals and other creatures that live in the wild with no trouble (and no cell phones). Aside from the bees, Tom briefly meets a rabbit and a dog is loaned to them while Will recuperates from a broken foot. Tom's favorite is seahorses; she reads about them and covets a lost seahorse necklace she finds in the woods. Granik's camera even lingers over spiderwebs at the film's beginning and end.

Without any kind of heaviness or brutality — the movie is close in spirit to Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete, which eventually lays on the misery in thick layers — Leave No Trace gets across its simple, beautiful ideas as lightly as poetry. This is Granik's third great feature film in a row, and it marks her as a major talent to watch. If only she worked more often!

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