Directed by Debra Granik
New York-based Debra Granik has been a highly regarded director and valuable voice in the contemporary cinema. “Leave No Trace” is another outstanding drama sprinkled with mystery, reinforcing a filmography already rich with not only impressive fictional works such as “Down to the Bone” and the Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone”, but also an amusing documentary, “Stray Dog”.
For this new work, Granik and her writing partner Anne Rossellini based themselves on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, triumphing once again in the art of shaping characters with an honest pragmatism.
Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are father and daughter, respectively. They are homeless, living hidden from the ‘outside’ world in a small camp mounted in the woods of a public park in Portland, Oregon. He is an Iraq war vet with PTSD who is always on the run, making a living from the illegal sale of the pills he occasionally picks up in town for his disease. She is 13, has a very strong bond with her father and wishes she could remember her late mother. She doesn’t go to school and is hungry, for most of the time, since gas and food have to be spared. The tent in which they sleep is leaking and the general conditions are visibly precarious.
Will is as much obsessive as he is a master in becoming ‘invisible’. He's cautious at all times, but not Tom, who is spotted by a jogger, triggering a search operation by police officers and the social services. They are eventually caught, interrogated, subjected to tests, and then given a job and a proper if isolated accommodation. Tom is happy as she reintegrates herself in the society with relative ease, even forging a solid friendship with a farmer boy. However, her unaggressive yet notably restless father has one sole fixed idea in his tortuous mind: to flee again.
Inevitably, they head north, where the hard cold bites, escaping into the middle of a muddy, humid, and uncomfortable forest. Once there, fortuitous encounters and fretful episodes wait for them. We reflect about the girl’s unstable life and future, realizing how unfair for her is to accompany her distressed father in these atypical journeys. She is young and unhappy; hence, a choice is imminent.
In terms of ambiance and filmmaking style, you can think about a crossing between Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers (some parts are pretty evocative of “Rosetta”). And it’s so easy to become involved in the dramatic situation of the family because it’s also easy to understand what is going on in their heads. The low-key temperament of the storytelling and the authenticity of the performances are strong elements of a subtle and intelligent film that captures our attention from the very first minute. It’s an emancipative, heartbreaking experience with humanity galore.