It doesn’t take long for “Leave No Trace” to tell you that it’s a well written, low-key, adult story. There’s the languid pacing that leaves you breathing room to observe things for yourself. There’s the absorbing, insightful way its leading characters quietly interact, and the sense of conviction about the challenging subject matter.
Admirably restrained director Debra Granik deals with a troubled veteran and his 13-year-old daughter living off the grid. They are a loving, protective family unit determined to remain side by side as long as possible. How deeply that does and doesn’t work out is the film’s drama, with results making your heart pound in ways Marvel movies never do.
Will (Ben Foster) has carried post-traumatic stress disorder home from his time in the military. There are no scenes of Mideast war slipped in here to give him a visible backstory. What we learn about him comes from the way he interacts with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt Mc Kenzie, a luminous discovery).
Will and Tom are a solid team as they collect water, grow their own food, gather mushrooms, fold up and relocate their tents and practice guarding against unwelcome arrivals like hungry animals.
Will keeps their homesteading all but invisible in a nature preserve just west of Portland. There are occasional trips into the noisy city when Will visits Veterans Affairs, fills his prescriptions for pills he sells to a dealer for grocery money. The authorities don’t enter their lives until they are caught for the minor crime of living on public land.
Returned to society and interviewed by social services, they’re treated with genuine concern and touching compassion. Father and daughter are allotted residence in a commune operated by a lumberman who takes Will on his staff to cut Christmas trees.
Tom finds the idea of having a roof over her head intriguing. But renegade Will has difficulty dealing with being confined indoors, and even more trouble adjusting to the helicopters that haul off fallen trees.
It’s our privilege to weigh Will’s uncomfortable reaction to humanity (which we see here at its best; absolutely no one is less than kind to this family) and Tom’s fawn-like openness and curiosity around others. And it’s our duty to consider what should happen when Tom and Will see their paths diverge. This is a family love story of surprising power and depth.
Eight years ago Granik gave us the unforgettable Ozark drama “Winter’s Bone,” which introduced us to Jennifer Lawrence’s gifts in a way no other performance in her career has matched. Granik’s new film is not nearly as bleak. What the two movies have in common is their detailed attention to the social and physical lives of marginal people, and acting that is honest to the core.
‘Leave No Trace’
Rated PG for thematic material.