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Granik’s Leave No Trace and the Transformative Power of Cinema

There is a scene in Debra Granik’s remarkable, unmissable film “Leave No Trace” where a young girl learns about bees. You have to build up trust to handle them. They won’t sting you if they trust you. You can even scoop them up with your bare hands. They don’t really want to sting you. The young girl eventually learns how to handle them without protection. The scene, like every scene in this exquisite film, is stripped bare of mood music to tell us what to feel or heavy-handed symbolism or extraneous emotion. Yet there it is — the metaphor for human relationships. Humans at war. Humans thrown out of homes. Fathers. Daughters. Strangers. Soldiers.

“Leave No Trace” has a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, which should mean people are talking about it — but of course, there is a lot of noise out there and that noise may have all but obliterated the deserved buzz for what is easily one of the best films of the year. It’s rare for me anymore to see a film that changes how I see the world, but this one did. I was caught off guard by how involved I became in the story of this father suffering from PTSD who can no longer live among people — and his impressionable, bright daughter who must.

Ben Foster plays Will, a vet who chases away the demons daily and has found a way to live the only way he can: in makeshift camps in forests somewhere deep in the Pacific Northwest. He has done such a good job raising his daughter Tom (New Zealand’s Thomasin McKenzie), even with the trauma he suffers daily, that it’s hard to find a good argument as to why they shouldn’t be living the way they do. Except that, of course, her life is just beginning and there is a big world out there for her to see.

Without holding her back, without inserting his own paranoid ideology into her life, he still seeks to protect her from what he sees as a dangerous world. And you know what? It’s hard to argue with that idea. Once the two of them are taken into custody and given what passes for a normal life here in America, we confront how strange our lives are without us even knowing it or paying attention — how our stuff defines us, how materialism measures success. How interactions with people can be problematic and how much easier it is to escape all of that and live in the midst of nature where there are rules about survival but rules that can be clearly understood.

“Leave No Trace” is about a lot of things, and Granik, co-adapting the Peter Rock novel “My Abandonment” with Anne Rosellini, allows the story to breathe so that you feel you are right there with Will and Tom as they squeeze forest moss to drink water, as their torn shoes softly crunch through the wood-covered forest floor. The quiet of the wilderness occasionally interrupted by obtrusive sounds of civilization. The question becomes how can they be living like that? And then it eventually shifts into how can we be living like this?

This is a film about why we need other people. And the comfort and kindness of animals. It is about how vulnerable we are and how easily broken our minds and our hearts can be in times of extreme violence, like war or social upheaval. It’s about the glimpses of compassion, from those who helped them find a place to sleep, or heal their wounds, or just to teach young Tom things like how to care for a rabbit or how to start a fire.

Parenting is fraught with its own risk: as you know there are a hundred ways you can screw up your kid. You just hope you don’t and do the best you can, but parents like Will must find a way to not suffer onto their children their own trauma. He manages this very well until she is old enough to realize that her father’s isolation isn’t any kind of way to live.

By the end of the film, we don’t know if Tom or Will can ultimately survive this occasionally awful thing called life. But you can’t really run away from it or make a fulfilling go of it without other people. We’re a tribe called humankind. We must learn to live with each other, because the bonds of friendship are too hard to live without.

The film is called “Leave No Trace” because that is what you need to do when you’re being hunted. But throughout our entire existence we, as humans, have left footprints behind, drawings on cave walls. Even our trash is a reminder and imprint of what we’ve done and who we are. To plant yourself in a community means you must mark it somehow, so someone will remember you were there.

This is a pitch-perfect film from the writing to the acting to the directing. Ben Foster’s quiet brilliance is how he says so much without saying anything at all. His buried emotion makes way for McKenzie to fill the story and since these notes are subtle, not obvious, always honest, Foster’s quiet resolve allows for that necessary balance — it is important for us to live inside what McKenzie is going through. This movie is about her internal world.

It’s been eight years since Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone became a Best Picture nominee and launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence. While McKenzie doesn’t have the same kind of explosive role that Lawrence had, she still makes the same kind of impression you really can’t forget.

The Oscar race has become such a well-oiled machine. We know how each film might fit into the Oscar story of a given year — this film probably has a chance to be talked about for Best Adapted Screenplay, maybe for Best Actress for McKenzie. If awards buzz helps it get seen, then it’s worth it. But to disregard a film this exquisite just because it might not get traction with Oscar voters would be a shame.

I don’t know what kind of industry Hollywood is that it wouldn’t properly nurture and embrace someone as gifted and talented as Granik with more opportunities. “Leave No Trace” is a reminder that cinema still has the power to transform our way of thinking, to move us greatly, and to help make sense of life’s combustible chaos each morning the sun comes up.

Do not miss “Leave No Trace.”