Leave No Trace Dec 30, 2019 16:14:09 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Dec 30, 2019 16:14:09 GMT -5
Leave No Trace (2018)
Directed by: Debra Granik
Directed by: Debra Granik
Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, like her acclaimed Winter's Bone from 2010, is a film keenly bent on observing its characters as opposed to over-explaining or embellishing their emotions and actions. Like many great dramas, its loyal father-and-daughter duo are best left to be viewed as they navigate their life without an invasive screenwriter, who tells us too much. Anyone who has worked in a journalistic or courtroom setting knows of the term "leading," the act of steering a reader or a judge to your personal conclusion through choice wording or phrasing. Directors and screenwriters have that ability as well, and when it comes to a story as potentially sentimental as Leave No Trace, it's rather noble of Granik to have minimized downplayed her hand as opposed to have overplayed it.
Yet, I can't help but feel there is still something missing in what is ultimately a solid but occasionally meandering drama. Manufactured emotion in the form of brazen orchestra strings and frivolous, passionate speeches from the lead characters most certainly wouldn't have helped, but the crux of the story doesn't feel as impacting as it should. Perhaps this is the downside for someone like me, who sees so many films a year, and obviously sees various films of the same kind in any given year. Interestingly enough, Leave No Trace left me feeling a lot like I did after watching Winter's Bone: satisfied but not overly so, at least not to the extent of my colleagues.
The film revolves around Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Will is an Iraq War vet, stricken with PTSD and a deep distrust for societal structure. It's why him and his daughter have gone off the grid, as they say, and have forged a life in Portland's vast wilderness. They have copious camping supplies, a workable amount of food, and spare cash Will gets from selling painkillers he gets from the VA. There's a lot to unpack in just this small summary, and desperately little of it is very positive.
Before long, park rangers find the two of them, which leads them to being dropped into a system of social workers, ambiguous tests, and temporary housing. Even when they get put up in a small, cozy home of their own, stability is far from obtained. Will obviously wants to go back to foraging in the woods, but begins to see Tom is becoming gradually more independent and wise in her decision-making. When she's enrolled in school, she doesn't react with resistance but instead is reminded of the self-reliant values her father taught her, but Will's troubled mental state and ongoing apprehension to the world around him makes it harder to accept Tom's blossoming individualism on the surface.
Tom's rejection of the nomadic life of her father is a fascinating one because of the ripple effects it has on Will. Deep down, even in his unstable state, Will knows her change-of-heart was almost inevitable. By instilling the values of independence into his daughter, she was bound to call her own shots and want more than what Will could give her. But leaving her to embrace society all over again has him both scared for her safety and fearful of really being alone. Even when he felt as if he was all by himself, he still had his daughter. And now he runs the risk of not even having her.
Granik keeps things hyper-focused on these two souls, as her and co-writer Anne Rosellini — working off of Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment — disregard any conventional subplots you might be expecting to find in a story like this. There is no venomous ex-wife who believes Tom's life is in danger, no intensely tailored backstory for him nor her, and no boyfriend or love interests to further detract from Will and Tom's familial connection. The counseling scenes are even carried out with an almost eerie professionalism. They're not theatrical and they feel oddly procedural, only because the seasoned moviegoers that we are expect fire when we see smoke.
I've waxed poetic about Foster's tremendous talents in the past, from major achievements in exceptional films like Hell and High Water, to decisively smaller, more intimate roles in imperfect but inspired films like Hostiles. Thomasin McKenzie is terrific in her role, laudably natural and articulate in her emotions — the perfect conduit for Granik and Rosellini's decision to downplay obvious emotion and summon it via routine conversation. I think the only drawback with Leave No Trace's approach is that I didn't get the punch I was hoping for. That's the concern when you have a film that thrives on a low-key approach to storytelling and characters. You run the risk of it not delivering the impact for some that you might be hoping to achieve in a greater sense. Let it be known, however, that I would still take contentment over contempt, which would've more-than-likely been the end result had this film been painted with a roller as opposed to a fine-tipped brush.
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, and Dale Dickey. Directed by: Debra Granik.