Debra Granik makes films about life on the edge, humanity clinging to a corner of civilization. The filmmaker – who earned an Oscar nomination for 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” featuring Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout role – is very selective about her work. But she has built an impeccable oeuvre, a trio of narrative films featuring women surviving a hardscrabble existence, and a documentary about a man reckoning with his wartime past.
In “Winter’s Bone,” life on the edge is dangerous, hard and scrappy. In her new film, “Leave No Trace,” life is even more precarious, but there’s something rather beautiful, peaceful, even idyllic in this existence.
Intense character actor Ben Foster, venerable though he’s not yet 40, stars as Will, opposite young New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, making her United States debut as his daughter, Tom. The pair lives an unconventional, impermanent life in the verdant woods on the outskirts of Portland. Within this lush paradise, Granik introduces us to their home life – their routines and rhythms, small pleasures and hypervigilance. They forage for greens and mushrooms, read, play chess, scare of packs of animals away and practice drills to hide from the park rangers and police.
The screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini is based on Peter Rock’s novel, “My Abandonment,” and like “Winter’s Bone,” it is a study in efficiency: achingly spare but telling in all the right ways, leaving space for the actors to inhabit fully realized and starkly realistic characters. Just as Granik carefully shows us their life, she parcels out Will’s past: a trip to the VA to pick up prescriptions, a tattered New York Times he carries that bears the headline “In Unit Stalked by Suicide, Veterans Try to Save One Another.” Working at a Christmas tree farm – the one shot he gives at a “normal” life – he hunkers down between the trees, curled into a ball, as a helicopter hovers overhead, chainsaws and machines whining.
“Leave No Trace” is a film about living with mental illness, and about living with a person who has mental illness. Tom carefully and gently parents her father as much as he does her, if not more so. When they are flushed out of their small but adventuresome life in the forest, Tom adapts. She’s nearly feral and undersocialized, but she always finds an animal to curl up to and a kind human protector. Her quiet insistence that they make a stable life somewhere, anywhere, grows as her father increasingly cannot cope with the structures and authority of life inside society.
Foster’s naturalistic intensity fits so perfectly into Granik’s sparse, evocative style that the collaboration seems fated. But it’s McKenzie who owns the film as the fragile yet hardy Tom. McKenzie gives her a wide-eyed yet knowing innocence. Her survival skills are unmatched if her social skills struggle, and throughout the course of the film, we watch her start to listen to and trust herself. Although untamed, she’s self-possessed, her strength delicate but mighty.
Although dangerous and difficult, life on the edge in “Leave No Trace” seems good, even sweet, simple, rich with hard-fought beauty. But perhaps it’s not Granik’s perspective that has shifted, but ours, as viewers. When civilization feels threatened, starting over in the woods seems not only appealing, but maybe even necessary. Especially when seen through Granik’s discerning eye. How lucky we are to have her work.