Thursday, May 09, 2019

"Leave No Trace": review

[NB: spoilers. Watch the movie before reading this review.]

2018's "Leave No Trace," based on Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment, is directed by Debra Granik and stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as a father and daughter who live illegally in the woods of a state park not far from Portland, Oregon. Will, the father, is an Iraq War vet who suffers from PTSD. Partway through the film, it's revealed that Will is an ex-Marine whose platoon suffered a rash of suicides upon returning to the States. Will's daughter, who goes by Tom (perhaps based on the actress's name) is around thirteen and the apple of her father's eye. Will teaches Tom survival skills as well as drills that prepare them to deal with being discovered in the park by authorities.

Surprisingly, the scenes of Will and Tom living in the woods are fairly brief: Tom gets spotted by a stranger in the woods, and the police, with their dogs, soon come hunting for the pair. They get caught and placed in social services; while in those offices, they are subjected to a battery of tests ranging from psychological to academic. It turns out that Tom is actually well ahead of where she needs to be in her education.

In the end, no one goes to jail; Will and Tom get relocated to a large property whose owner allows them to stay in a simple house on the premises. In return, Will must work with the owner's team to cut down and ship out Christmas trees, and Tom must attend school. Tom takes to her socialization fairly well, enjoying making friends and appreciating the stability of living life in an actual house instead of constantly scrabbling for survival out in the woods. Will, meanwhile, itches to leave, considering this new life a form of imprisonment. Eventually, he decides to pack and go, and he bids Tom come with him. She does, but only reluctantly. A fissure is beginning to form between father and daughter.

The two hitch a ride north into Washington, where it's much colder. They hike along a logging road and find an abandoned cabin, and when Will goes out to buy food from a nearby town, he ends up falling and knocking himself out. Sensing something is wrong, Tom goes out and finds her father, then she seeks help. Luckily, there is a small, raggedy trailer-park community of folksy eccentrics nearby, and one of them is a former Army medic who also suffers from PTSD. Once again, Tom finds that she enjoys being around people; she soaks up their kindness and is eager to learn from them. Will, meanwhile, has an injured ankle and spends his time brooding as he mends. In his mind, he'll be leaving soon.

This summary takes us to the movie's final act, which I won't spoil for you. The story is a delicate balance between Will's and Tom's points of view; the script is about as minimalist as you might expect for such a bare-bones plot. The Pacific Northwest woodlands are practically a character unto themselves; the forests aren't merely scenery: they're the anodyne for Will's afflicted and desolate mind, a reliable comfort for a man trying hard to hold on to his frail sanity. From Will's point of view, the story of "Leave No Trace" is about inner demons, the bonds of love, and the question of letting go. From Tom's point of view, the story is about coming of age, stepping out from under the protective shadow of the father, and finding direction and purpose in life.

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie (who is a Kiwi, but she does a perfect American accent) are both magnificent and heartbreaking in their roles. Foster seems like the kind of actor who's either attracted to roles depicting troubled people, or he somehow takes any role and makes it about a troubled person. That's not a dig against him: I think he gets better with age, and he plays all of his roles with great depth of feeling. At the risk of sounding cliché, his is a soulful performance. McKenzie, for her part, also hits the right notes as Tom, the taciturn daughter of a taciturn father. Especially early on, many of the scenes between Will and Tom are wordless as they go about the daily business of living in the woods, foraging for food, and trying to stay dry in the near-constant rain. McKenzie's Tom often seems distant and detached, but the actress makes it clear that, inside Tom's head, gears are whirring. And there are moments when Tom displays quietly intense emotions, especially when she finds the courage to speak out against her father's choices.

The movie also gets my respect for never taking the cheap and easy route. There were so many opportunities for events to take a melodramatic turn, but they never once did. It reminds me of the restraint Jack Nicholson showed in the movie "About Schmidt," which featured a very different Nicholson from the scenery-chewing ham we've come to know and love. Both Foster and McKenzie—who have great chemistry together—have mastered the art of saying volumes simply with their eyes, their facial expressions. There are no screaming matches; there's no sobbing. There are also no real bad guys in this movie: Will's inner demons, which we learn about indirectly through an excellently show-don't-tell narrative, are nasty enough to take the place of any bad guy. Every character that the two encounter—even the ones with very little screen time—is treated with respect and is portrayed in a manner that hints at an interesting history. There are no caricatures or flat characters here, which is especially a relief when it comes to how the social-service workers are portrayed.

The movie also treats mental illness with great respect and compassion, all without losing any authenticity. Nothing unbelievable happens; the plot merely unfolds in a slow, natural way, almost as if this, too, were a Clint Eastwood film like "The Mule." For military vets looking to see PTSD portrayed in a fair and balanced light, "Leave No Trace" is a good film to see. Ben Foster's Will has a certain nobility about him, even as he deals with his inner turmoil; he's sane and rational enough never to flip out when his daughter seems rebellious or has made a crucial mistake. She is precious to him, front and center in his painful life. Tom, as much as the pacifying forests of the Pacific Northwest, is what holds Will together.

And my hat is off to the cinematographer, Michael McDonough. I'm somewhat familiar with the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest, having hiked through them and camped in them in 2008. In a sense, I recognize that terrain, which is beautifully photographed for the film. Those woods stand in contrast to the urban scenes we get whenever Will and Tom dip into the city for supplies. The movie's sound design is also excellent; scenes inside the pair's tent, while rain patters on the fabric, brought to mind my own memories of many, many camping trips.

It's very tempting to compare "Leave No Trace" to "Captain Fantastic," which is also about a widowed father raising his kids in the woods, teaching them survival techniques while also educating them far better than any school system ever could. The difference is that "Captain Fantastic" is fanciful, comical, and somewhat ridiculous. It doesn't take its own ideas particularly seriously, whereas "Leave No Trace" is determinedly focused on its chosen themes. I'm also happy to report to friend and fellow reviewer Steve Honeywell that "Leave No Trace" is a coming-of-age movie in which the girl's maturation has nothing to do with sex.* Another trap the movie doesn't fall into.

By the end of "Leave No Trace," I wasn't blubbering, nor did I even experience a tightness in my throat. That said, I was profoundly moved by this film, which I found both magical in its evocation of nature's grandeur, and marvelous in its portrayal of a special parent-child relationship, thanks to the work of two very talented actors. This is an unbelievably haunting and beautiful movie that will stay with you long after it's over. Kudos to director Debra Granik for crafting what is truly a work of cinematic art. This review doesn't even begin to do the film justice. Highly, highly recommended.

*Steve has repeatedly noted, on his own blog, that coming-of-age films are about the encounter with death if the protagonist is a boy, and about the encounter with sex if the protagonist is a girl (i.e., the girl's coming of age always involves a guy). I agree with Steve that that does get tiresome once you recognize the pattern.

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