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Leave No Trace

You’ve probably never heard of Debra Granik, and that’s a damn shame. She made her second feature film with Winter’s Bone, earning tons of critical acclaim, a Best Picture nomination, and three other Oscar nods. This is the woman who kick-started the career of Jennifer Lawrence, who would go on to be one of the biggest and brightest young female stars on the planet. You should absolutely know who Granik is… except that it took her eight goddamn years to make another feature film. (Not counting an obscure documentary in 2014.)

Well, better late than never, because her most recent work is a doozy.

Leave No Trace was directed and co-written by Granik, adapted from the novel “My Abandonment” by Portland’s own Peter Rock. In turn, the novel was loosely inspired by the real-life story of a father and his daughter, discovered living in their own makeshift camp in Forest Park in 2004.

(Side note: For those of you who don’t live in Portland, the name “Forest Park” is not some cute hyperbole. It is literally a massive forest on the border of downtown Portland, one of the largest urban forest reserves in the country. Parks in this town are no joke — most of them are seriously large enough to get lost in.)

Ben Foster plays Will, a veteran of some unnamed military branch and some unnamed war. His teenage daughter — inexplicably named “Tom” — is played by newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. The two of them (It’s unclear where Tom’s mother went.) spend most of their time living off the grid in a camp somewhere in Forest Park. They do occasionally go into town, mostly to get drugs from the VA Hospital and buy what food they need. Then they sell the drugs to a local homeless settlement and start the whole thing over.

(Side note: In the original novel, the daughter is named Caroline. I assume the filmmakers renamed the character after the actress playing her, for whatever reason.)

Things inevitably fall apart when Will and Tom are caught living illegally on public land. The authorities very quickly perceive that the both of them — especially Tom — are in need of a proper shelter where they’re free to live without breaking any laws. The authorities further perceive that the both of them — especially Will — are in dire need of round-the-clock assistance in adapting to society at large.

As you might predict, this doesn’t go especially well.

The basic premise of a nomadic father figure raising his children off the grid in open defiance of society at large is nothing new. Captain Fantastic comes immediately to mind, ditto for The Glass Castle. But this movie immediately has an advantage over both of those recent examples because Will isn’t some insufferably arrogant hypocrite who thinks he’s inherently smarter and more special than everybody else.

No, Will doesn’t live in the forest because he’s idealistic — he does it because he went to war and he never came back. He is mentally, emotionally, spiritually unable to sit still or be at peace. He is fundamentally incapable of living unless he’s fighting to survive. Everywhere he goes, he’s on the battlefield — everyone (except his daughter, of course) is either an enemy or a target, and everyone is trying to get inside his head by any means necessary.

It’s especially fascinating to see how Will always has to know where Tom is at all times, but it’s not your stereotypical “overprotective father” sort of thing. Rather, it’s an extension of Will’s obsessive-compulsive need to be in control of everything around him at all times. Will’s psyche is so perilously fragile that if he doesn’t know exactly where Tom is and he can’t reach her in an instant (without the aid of phones, remember, because he’ll never touch one), he could go catatonic at best and homicidal at worst. It’s really quite remarkable how Foster brings that out in his performance.

Foster is no stranger to playing damaged war vets (see also: The MessengerLone Survivor, etc.), and Granik directed a 2014 documentary about a Vietnam veteran. Between the two of them, they had more than enough experience to craft this compelling portrayal of a man made and broken by his time in uniform.

Moving on to Thomasin McKenzie, so many critics have already drawn comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. This was perhaps inevitable, as they’re both superlative breakout performances from young actresses under the direction of Debra Granik, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Really, the two stories and characters are so different that there’s little point in comparing them.

For me, the comparison that immediately came to mind was with Jacob Tremblay’s starmaking turn in Room, opposite Brie Larson. As with Jack, Tom is a child who has to come of age in modern civilization after a lifetime in isolation with no real human contact aside from one heavily traumatized parent figure. Additionally, Tom — like Jack — is little more than a feral child, without much in the way of social skills, and so has to communicate a great deal nonverbally.

Of course, the comparison is hardly perfect. To begin with, Tom is older by at least a decade, with enough strength and experience to take care of herself and even stand up to her father where necessary. There’s also the fact that she was never completely isolated — she did go into town with her father on occasion, after all, even if she wasn’t on friendly terms with anyone aside from her father. And of course, taking the leap from “sheltered child” to “functioning member of society” is very different for a 17-year-old, as opposed to a five-year-old.

The interplay between Larson and Tremblay was admittedly much stronger, but it helped that the bizarre premise of Room gave those actors so much more to work with. That said, the climax to this movie should be enough in itself to get an Oscar nod for Foster and a lifetime on the A-list for McKenzie. Without spoiling anything, the climax is literally just Foster and McKenzie staring each other down. They don’t take any kind of action against each other, and they barely trade a word. It’s just these two characters hashing out their differences, going over their shared history and their feelings for each other, and the characters know each other so well that they do all of it without a word spoken.

Not only did Foster and McKenzie pull that off, but they made it compelling enough to work as the climax of the film. That’s a whole ‘nother level right there.

While the lion’s share of the screen time is focused on our main father/daughter pair, there are a couple of supporting characters worth mentioning. One of them is played by Dana Millican, because I’m pretty sure it’s against state and city law to shoot a film or TV show in Portland and not include her, though I don’t know why anyone would want to. Even better, she’s not a talking extra this time — she’s playing the government agent who takes point on helping Will and Tom readjust to society. It’s a thankless role, but Dana brings enough heart and charisma to make it into something memorable.

(Personal note: Dana is a longtime fixture in the local theatre community, and I’ve seen her do a lot more with a lot less. This isn’t the time and place to go into details, but you seriously have no idea.)

My other favorite is Winter’s Bone alumna Dale Dickey, here playing a character also named Dale. I won’t spoil much by going into details, but suffice to say that the character was written like a paper-thin plot device. It speaks volumes about Dickey’s talent as an actor that she could bring so much personality to a character with such flimsy motivations.

And then of course we have the city of Portland itself. While the film wasn’t actually shot in Forest Park, the woods of Clackamas County make a nicely convincing double. Though of course that didn’t stop the filmmakers from throwing in the obligatory shots of the St. John’s Bridge — how convenient that the city’s most instantly recognizable bridge just happens to be right next to Forest Park. Additionally, we get some beautiful views of the downtown skyline, as seen from the gritty central eastside and from the OHSU tram on its way to the VA Hospital atop Marquam Hill.

That said, very little of the movie actually takes place in or around Portland. Large stretches were shot in Estacada, filling in for the more rural areas of Oregon outside the Willamette Valley. And even then, all of it felt familiar. The glimpses of Portland may be fleeting, but they’re still the most authentic I’ve seen out of Hollywood in a very long time. The forest-based shots are far more numerous, and they perfectly evoke the sense of beauty and wonder that I’ve always felt hiking through them.

Except the day-for-night shots. Seriously, the movie on the whole is beautiful, but there are a bare handful of pitifully bad day-for-night shots here.

On a miscellaneous note, I was very fond of how animals are used as a recurring motif, especially where Tom was concerned. It was smart to give Tom something she had a deep-seated interest in, that she could possibly pursue as a career in the greater world. Seahorses are an especially prominent motif throughout the picture, for the stated reason that seahorses pair up for life. What goes unsaid is that seahorses are famously quite unusual, as the males are those who give birth — potentially relevant, given the status of Tom’s father as her sole parental figure.

In summary, Leave No Trace is a heartfelt and powerfully acted movie about two deeply compelling characters. Tom’s development arc into a young woman acting independently of her father makes for a fantastic coming-of-age story, especially against Will’s heartbreaking struggles with wartime PTSD. I loved the visuals and the use of the Portland setting. I loved the focus on the more rural blue-collar crowd without completely neglecting the city and its own kind of beauty.

I have no problem giving this a full recommendation. Definitely check it out.

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