This is Debra Granik's first narrative feature in nearly a decade. In 2010, she cowrote and directed Winter's Bone, a masterful tale of murder, mental illness and meth that introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence. That film, of course, possessed any number of laudable attributes. But consider for one second the significance of that single element: serving as the culture's J-Law delivery system.
How many sublimely indelible moments of cinema might otherwise never have happened? We're talking a practically BC/AD-level chronological divide. But I digress (with a montage of sublimely indelible moments from Silver Linings Playbook, Joy, American Hustle and Mother! flashing across my consciousness). Sorry.
Like Winter's Bone, Leave No Trace is set off the beaten track. As it opens, a father and daughter go about their routine wordlessly. Will is played by that shape-shifter Ben Foster; his 13-year-old daughter, Tom, by talented newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. A viewer might mistake them for campers enjoying a getaway. What quickly becomes apparent, though, is that they haven't gotten away from home. The Oregon wilderness preserve stretching for miles in every direction is their home.
Will is a veteran of a war that goes unnamed. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that triggers nightmares that go undramatized. Granik doesn't need flashbacks or re-creations when she has a lead with Foster's gifts. She directs the actor to his most sensitive, subdued performance to date.
This is a movie that avoids overused tropes as deliberately as a soldier sidesteps mines. We see that Will is haunted, somewhat at war with the world. His gaze, bearing and protectiveness of Tom tell us everything we need to know.
Father and daughter appear to comprise a self-contained world. He provides the al fresco version of homeschooling, teaching survival skills like moving through brush without leaving tracks. They play chess, forage for food and periodically trek into town for supplies, paying with money Will makes selling his prescription meds to vets living in a nearby tent city.
One day a jogger spots Tom, setting in motion a chain of bureaucratic events with a sadly predictable outcome. If there's anything our government does better than shortchanging wounded warriors, it's separating parents from children. To their horror, Will and Tom find themselves apart for the first time in years.
Granik and cowriter Anne Rosellini based their script on Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment, which is itself based on the true story of a father and daughter found living in an Oregon wilderness preserve. To digress again: Given the enormous number of changes the filmmakers made to their source material, I wonder why they bothered to buy the rights at all. They use the novel's premise as a jumping-off point for a far more sociologically trenchant and ultimately wrenching tale of their own. They could have used news accounts as a public domain basis, as Rock did. I don't get it. Maybe they owed him money.
Movie-critic law prohibits saying much more about the fates of Will and Tom once the system gets its hands on them. I think it's fair to posit, though, that few films have as deftly suggested the limitlessness of familial love, the pain and inevitability of diverging paths, and the infinite forms that family — or, for that matter, society — can take.
Granik's latest cements her standing as a filmmaker of extraordinary craftsmanship and humanistic vision. She's a poet laureate of the dispossessed, an artist capable of seeing both the forest and the trees.