Friday, August 17, 2018

Refugees: Leave No Trace

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace. (Photo: IMDB)

Intimate, graceful and sorrowful, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. And it’s a total surprise, because I found Granik’s last picture, Winter’s Bone, phony pretty much from start to finish. A study of an adolescent girl (Jennifer Lawrence) growing up in abject poverty in the Ozarks, it was relentlessly gray and cheerless, the characters reduced to editorial signposts proclaiming the director’s vision. The whole movie reminded me of the scene at the end of Brokeback Mountain where Heath Ledger visits his clandestine lover Jake Gyllenhaal’s parents after Gyllenhaal’s death: Ang Lee wanted to make the point that these people were dirt poor, so the walls were bare. But it’s an elemental human impulse to try to import some comfort to even the grimmest surroundings – a hospital room, a jail cell. The only scene in Winter’s Bone that felt lived-in was one where a group of people gather to make music. By contrast, there isn’t a single moment in Leave No Trace – the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who lives, homeless and itinerant, with her father, Will (Ben Foster), in the woods of the Pacific Northwest – that seems inauthentic. It has a varied and rich emotional palette. Perhaps the magnificent visual palette of the landscape (shot by Michael McDonough) helped keep Granik honest.

Granik wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, adapting a novel called My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Tom’s mother is dead (we aren’t told how or how long ago she died) and she and her father live outside society because he doesn’t like its institutions or its values. He’s taken charge of the girl’s education; we could say he’s home-schooled her, but for years, evidently, there’s been no home to school her in – though Tom doesn’t think so: when she’s asked at one point where her home is, she answers without hesitation, “My dad.” Will was in the army, and it’s clear that his suspiciousness and social disaffectedness and chronic restlessness are manifestations of PTSD. Early in the movie the police catch them making camp in an urban park in Portland, Oregon and one of the officers, Jean (Dana Millican), finds them a house they can move into; its owner (Jeff Kober) lets them have it rent-free in exchange for Will’s manual labor on his farm. But Will finds it hard to accept the items Jean keeps bringing by for them – especially a TV, which he eyes as if it were an intruder and stows away in a closet – and he’s ill at ease with the members of the community he’s expected to join. When he and Tom attend the local church, he sits stiffly in the pew and listens, polite but unresponsive, as the pastor (Spencer S. Hanley) extends a welcome and invites them to return. The next night he tells Tom to pack up her things and they steal off, hitching a ride with a congenial trucker (Art Hickman) into Washington State. There they wind up squatting in a cabin whose owners are absent, until Will has an accident in the woods when he ventures out to get supplies. When he doesn’t come back, Tom goes out after him, finds him unconscious, and flags down help. He’s taken to the home of a kindly woman named Dale (Dale Dickey) who appears to be the heart of this rural community; when Tom insists that it’s not a good idea to move him to a hospital because he doesn’t like to answer questions, she bring in an ex-army medic (David Pittman) who fixes up his damaged leg, and Dale puts him and Tom up while he’s recovering.

Granik and Rosselini are careful to show us how much pleasure father and daughter take in each other’s company, and how tenderly he cares for her. This isn’t a story about parental neglect and abuse like The Glass Castle, and it isn’t confused as that movie was, trying to have it both ways – to show us why the heroine (Brie Larson) has to escape life with her impossible, infuriating parents (Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts) while pretending that she has a lot to be grateful to them for. Leave No Trace takes us into Tom and Will’s outlaw existence at the point at which she’s begun to hanker for the social interaction he can’t tolerate for long; the reason they’re caught in Portland is that she couldn’t resist getting into a conversation with a friendly stranger. At the church service, some ladies put on a dance demonstration, and Tom hangs around afterwards learning how to execute some of the moves. She’s reluctant to go back on the road; when Dale finds them space in a nearby trailer camp, she falls in love with this new community of women and men who have left city life far behind and found a peaceful alternative existence, where they get together to share food and play music. (One of them is played by Michael Hurley, a Greenwich Village folksinger from the sixties and seventies, who sings a souful duet with Marisa Anderson.) “These people are a lot like us,” she tells her dad. But they aren’t like him; no one is. And finally it’s clear to Tom that she isn’t either, that “what’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.” This is an inexpressibly sad movie about a man who carries psychic wounds so deep that he’s beyond the possibility of rescue, and the daughter who comes to the devastating conclusion that she has to live her life apart from him. And you realize, as the movie ends with Will disappearing into the next forest, that this place Tom has found a home in is only a stopgap for her, too, but a different sort – that her instinct for social contact and her burgeoning interest in everything in the world her father has shielded her from will eventually lead her to a more conventional – more integrated – milieu. And it’s what we want for this intelligent, resourceful, outreaching young woman: warm and generous of spirit as these people are, their lives, too, have a sadness to them that will end up imposing limitations on her.

Granik does superb work with the supporting cast, who inhabit their small roles so effortlessly that they don’t seem to be acting at all. McKenzie, whose character embodies the trajectory of the film, is yet another talented young actor. This movie summer has been marked with them: Charlie Plummer in Lean on Pete, Kiersey Clemons in Hearts Beat Loud – two movies that, for different reasons, I thought of while I was watching Leave No Trace. And Ben Foster, an actor I generally find showy and emphatic, has found a muted intensity here that liberates him: playing a man whose entire life is a study in how to keep himself from being discovered, he gives a performance in which clarity and mystery are perfectly balanced. His acting here is a small but shimmering revelation.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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