Director Debra Granik’s focus on young women whose lives have been steeped in nature and hardship, forced to lead their families forward despite scant resources, posits a refreshing feminine archetype.
Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik. Screening Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
By Peg Aloi
I recall being so captivated by Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone that I paid to see it three times in the theatre. The story’s suspense, driven by dangerous characters living in a small rural community, made it compelling. But mainly I was blown away by the main character Ree, a teenage girl played by Jennifer Lawrence before she became a household name. Ree is fighting for her young siblings, her family’s rural homestead, and her own survival in the midst of a dark web of crime, secrets, and depraved indifference. Crystal meth, its production and distribution, has become the default economic engine for the area. Protecting this way of life from the law and naysayers unites Ree’s neighbors against her, thwarting her desire to clear her father’s name (and prevent foreclosure on their home) after he is murdered, allegedly for being an informant to local law enforcement. Ree’s compassion for others, refusal to yield to ill treatment, and righteous anger against injustice make her both heroic and naïve. The film never lionizes her, spotlighting her failures as brightly as her victories.
In Leave No Trace, Granik’s first feature since her award-studded success with Winter’s Bone, the filmmaker once again teams up with screenwriter Anne Rosselini, who has adapted Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment. Once again, the protagonist is a teenage girl living in a culture removed from the “normal” world of law-abiding citizens, public schools, and social media. Once again, a father figure lives outside the law. But this family of two, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and Will (Ben Foster), is a well-functioning unit, living in a forest campsite just outside Portland, Oregon, in an almost idyllic structure of sustainability and survival.
The film’s first few scenes find Tom and Will devoting their days to procuring food (she collects mushrooms, they grow greens in pots), reinforcing their camp, and practicing how to hide in case they’re discovered by authorities (park rangers). Will asks Tom to repeatedly recite reminders of the behaviors that will keep them safe. She gamely does what she’s told, and is an equal partner in the workload. But she becomes impatient when she’s hungry, particularly waiting for her father to use flint on damp kindling instead of just lighting up their propane stove. The survivalist vibe in their existence is devoid of any political overtones: they’re just trying to live unobserved, conserve their resources, and stay healthy. Some viewers might be reminded of a similar storyline in the film Captain Fantastic, where a widowed man (Viggo Mortensen) seeks to raise his children in a wooded enclave away from capitalism and technology. But that character’s retreat from society felt closer to protest rather than escape, especially when we learn he came from a wealthy family. Will and Tom live on the edge because, apparently, they have to.
It’s never made clear why Will, who has a military background, feels the need to live in the woods, though it seems to be about feeling secure and in control. Every few days he and Tom ride the subway to do errands in the city. He sells his medication to fellow veterans, spending the money to buy food and other supplies. Will’s vet friends have their own encampment in another park; they talk about the frustrations they experience relying on the VA for what they need. Obviously, Will has issues of anxiety and trauma that medication can’t help; living in nature has become his form of therapy. But when their encampment is discovered, and they’re whisked off to be rehoused by social services, the initial readjustment produces radically different responses in father and daughter. What feels like a relief to Tom is an unwelcome burden and, possibly, a source of pain for Will.
So subtle is Ben Foster’s performance (and Granik’s vision of this story), that there is no overt expression of PTSD in Will’s behavior, no inappropriate outbursts, no night terrors, no substance abuse or obvious insomnia. The discipline and rigorous rules of the camp in the woods satisfy some innate need for order in Will; does this stem from his military experience? Will’s manner when dealing with people (social workers, fellow vets, law enforcement) is calm, if wary. He’s uncomfortable answering questions about his feelings, as well as making out questionnaires that amount to personality tests, presumably meant to help provide him with appropriate treatment. Will and Tom are placed in a house on a tree farm, intended to provide the “remote” environment he seems to require. But his face tenses when he hears loud forestry equipment, and the sanitary blandness of the house irritates him. Soon enough, he decides he and Tom must leave; they pack up their things and hitch a ride north.
They spend a harrowing night in the woods because they are unused to the colder temperatures. Tom is frightened about their well being; she challenges Will’s insistence on following what to her is a self-destructive path. But on they go, his determination to live off the grid and protect his daughter his only goals. Her father has taught her well: in the face of calamity, Tom is clear-eyed, capable, and strong. But the more she is exposed to life among other people, including modern conveniences, the more Tom understands that her father’s struggles have shaped her own life. She wants more for both of them; but she also understands his demons are deeply embedded.
Thomasin McKenzie’s Tom is an affecting and multi-faceted character. Her wide, thoughtful eyes and straightforward but gentle speech put her light years away from teenagers glued to their smartphones. Taught to be self-sufficient, she aches to connect with others, to have a chance to experience “normal” life (though the communities she encounters are also full of outsiders: an enterprising boy who loves 4-H and designs tiny houses; folk musicians living in wooded camps full of RVs). Granik’s focus on young women whose lives have been shaped by nature and hardship, forced to lead their families forward despite scant resources, posits a refreshing feminine archetype, a new sort of warrior for our shifting frontiers and our crumbling kingdoms: youthful, embattled, determined and, perhaps above all, compassionate.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com