Debra Granik’s follow up to Winter’s Bone was well worth the wait.
Debra Granik’s newest film Leave No Trace is an incredibly confident piece of cinema, particularly for allowing the audience to bask in its central conflict while not painting either side as clearly morally superior. In a world where the film seems far more eager to boil these complex problems into simple black-and-white tales, this comes as a breath of fresh air. As the movie goes on, it does take a side in its central conflict, but much like the main character Tom (a superb Thomasin McKenzie), the plotting is deliberate, waiting to act until the wrongs cannot be tolerated anymore.
The central two characters, Will and Tom form one of the most relatable families I’ve seen in the film, with their failures to please each other creating a tension more commonly seen during family dinners. There are times during the film felt more like a documentary than a work of fiction. This is largely to do with the central performances, where each character is forced to form a different identity based on their surroundings.
Throughout the film, Will (Ben Foster) speaks against his perceived imprisonment in society, saying that despite all the rules he is forced to adhere to “We can still think our own thoughts.” For him, the outside world is a prison, one he must retreat from in order to maintain some semblance of stability. For his daughter, though, reconnection with the outside world provides her a peace she’s so longed for. Where Will feels he understands the world, and that it has nothing to offer him, Tom is still learning. She jumps wholeheartedly into relationships with people and animals, first learning to take care of a lone rabbit, and later discovering the joys of beekeeping. When Will inevitably packs up to take Tom to a new location, we see a clear loss in her eyes.
Thomasin McKenzie is a rare actor, who seems to contain entire lifetimes within her despite her young age. In early scenes, Tom seems content, and incredibly mature, but the second she’s taken out of her comfort zone, when she’s surrounded by professionals who just to help her, she regresses to a much younger age. Everyone just wants to take care of her, but she’s too distracted by taking care of her father.
Ben Foster reaffirms that he is one of the finest actors working today, and it is powerful to see him so broken. We understand that this relationship can’t last, but we don’t know how he’ll react. Will’s a veteran suffering from PTSD, and the film never shies away from the problems this causes for him. He sells drugs to other veterans living out in the woods, and his manic episodes – demanding a long trek through freezing temperatures, packing up at a moment’s notice – lead us to think that if Thomasin ever speaks up, he may respond violently.
Despite all this tension and sadness, there is a kindness running through this film. Nobody in it behaves malevolently. Every outsider helps far more than they are asked to. Communities build up around Tom and Will, even if they aren’t able to fully participate. Towards the end of the film, they seek refuge in a trailer park in the woods. The residents of this park play guitar, harmonize, sing to each other. It’s a peaceful existence. One of the residents, another veteran, offers his dog to Will, saying it helped him with his PTSD.
The relationship between humans and animals is a huge grounding force in this film. When working at a ranch, Will asks if there’s any way he could help around the stables. Despite a rejection then, we see him later on, deep in thought, his hand resting against a horse. Meanwhile, Tom takes classes on how to properly take care of a rabbit for the Future Farmers of America. These separate events allow them to show their true natures. Will seeks grounding influences; Tom, animals, it doesn’t matter. Tom, though, is a born nurturer, providing a clear path for their codependent relationship. If Tom was older, she might be able to help Will, but Tom needs to grow up first. Will simply can’t provide that. Though this particular situation is extreme, it’s a dynamic seen in houses across the world. And though this film certainly left me feeling heavy, it left just enough room for a more hopeful future.
In Select Theaters Starting June 29th