The opening scene of “Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s newest film, presents us with what looks like a natural paradise: tall trees, dense green undergrowth, hills and ravines, all contributing to the kind of solitude and quiet that some people crave.
We quickly meet two of those people: a man named Will (played by Ben Foster) and his mid-teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin McKenzie). They appear to be camping, comfortable in their abilities to live and seemingly thrive in an outdoors setting. But mostly they appear to be comfortable living with each other.
Much of that perception changes, though, when we learn that the two are hiding. It changes even further when they are apprehended by the authorities, not just police but by social workers who, when Will and Tom are officially processed, arrange for them to no longer be “unhoused” – which is the euphemism of choice – but to live indoors.
And gradually we learn what we need to know: Will is a former Marine, a combat veteran whose suffers from bad dreams, a broken man who can’t stand – or at least can’t stand for long – any existence that forces him to live in what most of us would consider to be normal society.
In other words, they aren’t hiding because they’re running from the law. They’re running from societal expectations that Will won’t, or can’t, face.
His only real connection to the larger world, in fact, is Tom, his daughter by a woman who is long gone, a budding adult who is as fiercely protective of him as he is of her. Yet as both come to realize, what’s broken in Will is not broken in Tom. And ultimately she is going to have to make a choice: staying with dad or pursuing a life of her own.
Granik, who co-wrote her screenplay with Anne Rosellini, adapted “Leave No Trace” from a novel titled “My Abandonment” by Portland writer Peter Rock. Granik and Rosellini have teamed up on a number of projects, most notably the 2010 feature “Winter’s Bone” – a movie that helped introduce audiences to the actress Jennifer Lawrence.
Like “Winter’s Bone,” “Leave No Trace” doesn’t unfold with a typical Hollywood-type narrative. Instead of the dramatic highs and lows, it proceeds in a stately, evenly paced manner that smacks of authentic life. And the casting, from veteran Foster – familiar from such shows as HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and feature films such as “Hell or High Water” – to newcomer McKenzie, not to mention a number of secondary performers, only adds to the film’s low-key, realistic feel.
Which clearly is Granik’s intent. She’s far more interested in understanding her characters, in showing how they interact, both with each other and with their environments, than in coming to any larger judgments either of them or of the decisions they make.
Not that her characters refuse to act. In the end, Tom does make a decision – and that decision, hard as it proves to be, gives us some confidence that, in the long run, she’s going to be just fine.
As for Will, that's a whole other question.