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When Henry David Thoreau went into the woods to live deliberately, he did not have to worry about a social safety net. He could write Walden in peace, without anyone questioning why he would cut himself from civilization. The main character in Leave No Trace, one of the year’s best dramas, may have been inspired by Thoreau, but his need to live deliberately is not out of some commitment to transcendentalism. Written and directed by Debra Granik, whose last feature-length drama was Winter’s Bone, this is a film that eschews melodrama in favor of smaller, tense moments. It asks for careful attention, practically demanding the audience lean forward attentively, which leads to startling emotional power.
A man named Will (Ben Foster) and a teenage girl named Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in the woods. They have some modern camping tools, but mostly live off the land in a way that reduces their carbon footprint. The opening sequences could be post-apocalyptic, since their isolation is so complete, but we gradually learn Will and Tom are adjacent to the Portland, Oregon, area. We also learn he is the girl’s father. They speak quietly, mostly talking about the next task at hand, so when they do return to civilization the sound of people and traffic is all the more deafening. The police interrupt their tranquility—they are technically trespassing, and are arrested—so the family services try and find accommodations that resemble the life they led. The father cannot stand such compromise, so he and his daughter escape for a simpler life away from prying eyes.
Over the past 10 years, Ben Foster has been drawn to unconventional, intense characters. He played a villain in 3:10 to Yuma, but abandoned big budget genre fare in favor of smaller roles like Hell Or High Water and The Messenger. He specializes in people who are too wounded and proud to articulate what troubles them, so this role is a perfect fit. When government officials interrogate Will, you can sense the quiet resentment building within him. But he wants to be accommodating, and a good example for his daughter. Foster communicates nonverbally, his eyes betraying his anger or his body deflating whenever he has a setback. Granik offers few clues about his backstory—he could have lived with his daughter for weeks, or years—and this spartan narrative only makes us more curious.
Leave No Trace would fall apart without McKenzie, who proves to be Foster’s equal. Tom is open and curious; she internalizes the preferred lifestyle of her father, and still has enough experience to question his decision-making. Their rapport is touching because there are no arguments or histrionics: This a bond borne out of love and mutual respect. In an early scene where the girl finds a necklace on the trail, and she asks her father whether she can keep it. He says, “Only if it’s still there when we get back.” It is a strange answer, and yet she nods quietly, eschewing material things in a way that is atypical of a teenager. Only when the film gets into its central conflict—whether Will has their best interests at heart—does Tom become an independent thinker, and yet it is not a stretch when she quietly, patiently makes her case.
With its Pacific Northwest setting, Granik evokes the same feeling and aesthetic as Kelly Reichardt. In films like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt presents the region as a place where life is tough and the people persist in a quiet, gentle way. Leave No Trace never looks like travelogue: These woods are dense and foreboding, particularly when the pair head into Washington State where the air is much cooler. Still, the most remarkable thing is how Granik helps us internalize the point of view of her lead characters. There is a moment where Will works for a logger, cutting down trees for Christmas, and the sheer waste of the endeavor gnaws at him. At the same time, Tom’s open face and kind eyes suggest she is not yet so defeated.
While Leave No Trace does not specifically take place in the present, it has added resonance for this particular cultural moment. We learn Will is a veteran, and although we never hear about the specifics of his service, there is some connection between it and his disconnect from society. There is something undeniably appealing about the lifestyle, whether it means getting off social media or having no mortgage/ rent to pay. While the film never quite admonishes Will, it does reveal how his lifestyle cannot sustain a family. His shared isolation with Tom is a shared fantasy. The final scenes, told with unusual economy, are about how Tom is finally too curious and engaged to share the fantasy any longer.
Leave No Trace opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.