There's an ache in the bones of Leave No Trace that runs as deep as the chill of its Pacific Northwest environs. It comes from the pain of a father and daughter moving in opposite directions, one keeping society at arm's length, the other curious to live among other people. Through lean, economic and patient storytelling, the film builds into a quiet and intimate intensity, buoyed by two of the most mutually attuned performances you'll see this year.
Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (the revelatory Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) live an Oregon forest, roughing it off the grid with a manner of practiced routine: Pick berries and mushrooms, start fires for cooking, read and play chess, with an occasional foray into town to visit the grocery store and the VA hospital. They live hand to mouth, but they seem content enough; there's nothing abusive about their relationship. Director Debra Granik immerses us in their verdant, dewy surroundings, the kind of secluded world in which Thoreau might make himself at home.
Like Thoreau, Will doesn't have much use for society. He doesn't need to make any grand speeches about the matter; it's in his eyes, which cease looking wary only when he's caring for his teen daughter, the only human being in his life. The first section of the film allows us to lull into Will and Tom's everyday lifestyle, which they seem to have practiced for a while.
Then the outside world invades. Father and daughter are discovered by the police, and they enter the world of social services. At first she wants nothing more than to stay with her dad. Then they get placed in a home, where Will ekes out a living on a Christmas tree farm and plots the next escape. Meanwhile, Tom comes to a surprising discovery: She kind of likes other people and a modest degree of comfort. This crack in Will and Tom's relationship slowly comes into focus as the film progresses.
Foster is known for harnessing the volatility of difficult characters, and Leave No Trace would seem to offer him the opportunity to do the same. Not so fast. Foster plays Will as a sad but gentle outsider, a wild animal whose shoulders slump and face darkens in captivity. He's a military veteran and a widower who just wants to be left alone and look after his girl. It's an intensely inward-looking and heartbreaking performance that further cements Foster's status as one of the best actors around.
For all of that, this is still McKenzie's movie. In 2010 Granik directed a little-known actress named Jennifer Lawrence to an Oscar nomination in Winter's Bone, another film about outcasts cut off from the modern bustle. In Leave No Trace McKenzie hooks us from the start, her face showing the subtle expressiveness of a top silent movie star. But it's the long run that really shows what kind of promise she has. As Will turns further inward with each step toward civilization, Tom blooms. Her face opens up. She finds a sense of community in the Washington RV camp where she and Will eventually land, and a mother figure, played by Winter's Bone standout Dale Dickey. You feel her growth, even as you feel the distance it creates from her father.
Granik is one of the most distinctive filmmaking voices we have; I'd love to see her make more features but I'm also glad she takes the time to do them right. This unhurriedness is the essence of her work. There's no flash-and-dash here. There's little loud noise. If Will were the type to go out and take in a movie, you get the feeling he'd appreciate her work. I certainly do.
Leave No Trace (A-)
PG (thematic material throughout). 109 mins. At the Angelika Dallas and the Angelika Plano.