Leave No Trace (2018) - 8/10
I’d forgotten why this was on my watch list, but I think it’s the director Debra Granik responsible for Winter’s Bone that brought me here. There’s an outdoorsy feel there, as there is here. Where Winter’s Bone is bleak and desaturated from the start. Leave No Trace at least starts with an idyllic feel. Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) live off grid in the wooded forests of Oregon. It’s not clear what’s brought them here, but they seem content, self sufficient, despite the rain. Something isn’t right though… they’re hiding and when you hide. Well sooner or later… “We know who you are and what’s going on” the arresting officer says. Tom doesn’t remember her mother. Doesn’t remember anything but her life with her dad in the woods, but now finds herself answering questions about their lives together to social services. It’s a stark contrast and the film plays up to that. There’s no background score, the sound like the cinematography is sparse, simply, incidental. Minimal dialogue, it feels natural and therefore almost voyeuristic. Will and Tom going through an upheaval that maybe we needn’t be privy to. Rehoused, everyone doing what they’re supposed to within the system. That should be it right? Acclimatising can be difficult though. Walls, possessions, church, school. Tom takes it in her stride. Will not so much and he struggles with Tom finding some independence. His reluctance to adapt, sets them on a dangerous path and causes a tiny rift between father and daughter that is only ever going to deepen. It’s slow and purposeful. A tale of practicality, stubbornness, alienation, consumerism, all with the backdrop of the harsh Pacific Northwest. Films like this have an odd feel. It’s not entertainment in the traditional sense. It’s not documentary despite its themes and situations being real. Like Nomadland it sits in someplace in between. As we reach further in though the drama increases as the stakes get higher, the pace still slow, begins to grip as the first score I recall drifts in. You need to be patient though. There are a lot of questions, some are answered, but the viewer is expected to immerse themselves and trust that Granik will deliver as much or as little as needed. Foster is great as the disenfranchised loner focused only on their freedom. McKenzie though steals the film. She’s fantastic. For such an understated role, it’s amazing how much gentle power she conveys. Just as cautious, but she’s the open warmth. The light and the beating heart of a remarkably touching film. It really is quite a journey.