THE BOONIES — Between the latest huge action blockbusters and superhero installments, you may find yourself longing for a quieter, smaller on-screen tale this summer.
Director Debra Granik has the answer with her latest feature, “Leave No Trace.” Based on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, the movie tells the story of a father (Ben Foster) and daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who live an isolated life camping in a public park near Portland, Oregon.
When they are forced to re-enter “normal” society, the film follows the small family as they struggle to adjust and adapt.
Granik’s previous work also has told stories about unconventional people living lives that are different from most Americans.
Her 2010 film “Winter’s Bone” followed a teenager working to protect her family among a harsh, unforgiving community in the remote Ozark Mountains. Granik’s 2014 documentary “Stray Dog” provided a look at a Vietnam War veteran turned RV park-manager/outlaw biker still wrestling with the effects of war decades later.
With “Leave No Trace,” she has another empathetic, stark, realistic story of two people who are anything but normal.
Here are a few reasons why I think “Leave No Trace” is one of the best films of the year so far, but a few reasons why it’s not for everybody.
The acting is amazing
In 2010, Granik cast then-unknown actress Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone.” Lawrence’s performance was universally praised and earned her an Academy Award nomination. Now, she’s a massive star.
I can’t help but think Granik has found another star-in-the-making with the young female protagonist of “Leave No Trace,” played by New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.
McKenzie’s character, Tom, is tough, determined and endlessly resourceful. She seems like she’s had more meaningful life experiences than most adults, even though she’s just a pre-teen.
Even so, Tom is thrown into situations where she’s completely out of her element. In these scenes, McKenzie acts with brilliant subtlety to show that her character is feeling vulnerable but trying desperately to look strong.
In a pivotal dramatic scene toward the end of the film, McKenzie holds her own with her talented co-star Ben Foster, who is one of Hollywood’s most underrated working actors.
Similarly, Foster plays Tom’s father, Will, with fascinating depth. The film reveals little about Will’s background aside from the fact that he’s an army veteran.
He is a troubled father who wants to do what’s best for his daughter, but sometimes his own limitations make that impossible. Foster dissolves into his role to play a genuine father who is self-aware enough to realize that his own issues get in the way of doing what’s best for Tom, and is conflicted by that thought.
The film focuses almost all of its time on McKenzie and Foster, but actors in supporting roles do their part to fit in with the world Granik creates in her film.
It’s apolitical, realistic and drama-free
It’s difficult to find a film these days that doesn’t have some sort of underlying political or social message.
“Leave No Trace” touches on a few issues, such as the difficulties veterans and the homeless face integrating with modern society. But those things are only lightly addressed, and nothing is shoved in your face.
You might expect such a somber film to include some truly rotten characters who try to sabotage the main characters. Other films would get their drama from characters like that, but “Leave No Trace” has no such thing.
Most of the people in the film who come in contact with Will and Tom simply try to help them: A social worker who assists them with paperwork, a truck driver who gives them a lift, a mother who offers them a place to stay.
Though awful people certainly exist in the world, most people are empathetic and kind, and Granik clearly believes this. Because of that, her movie seems all the more realistic.
It’s light on plot
For moviegoers who appreciate a good character study, “Leave No Trace” has everything you could ask for.
But for those people who like a little more action and plot, the movie is a little light.
The characters at the center of the movie are wanderers, ambling through the Pacific Northwest from place to place. The plot is similarly nomadic as it follows Will and Tom.
While it documents the close of a massively important chapter in the lives of the characters, the ending of “Leave No Trace” isn’t particularly climactic. While I was satisfied, I could see other viewers left feeling unfulfilled by the film’s final scenes.
“Leave No Trace” is the work of a confident, talented filmmaker who has a singular vision. I’d recommend the movie for people who like slow-burning character studies, though the more emotional scenes may hit a little too close to home for parents and kids.
“Leave No Trace” is rated PG for thematic material throughout.