Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie are excellent as a father and daughter who, existing off the grid, are forced back into a civilization that’s entirely alien to them. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
It’s been a minute since Debra Granik graced audiences with a movie. Her last feature was 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” which introduced the world at large to Jennifer Lawrence. But when she gifts us films like her latest, “Leave No Trace,” it was worth every second we waited.
Granik tells a minimalist tale of a father-daughter relationship that’s simultaneously specific and unique but also universal and relatable. A troubled military vet, Will (Ben Foster), and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), exist off the grid. Hidden in the dense woods of a park outside Portland, they lead a quiet, austere life, until they’re discovered and forced back into a civilization that’s entirely alien to them.
Based on Peter Rock’s novel, “My Abandonment,” “Leave No Trace” offers a compelling, deeply moving story of struggling to live on your own terms, coping with severe trauma, and outsiders searching for a place to belong and call home.
The film presents an intriguing setup fraught with danger, pitfalls and moral ambiguity, but it’s the performances that propel everything else. Foster scarcely says a word, and outside of a few brief flashbacks, we don’t learn much about what Will experienced. But his wounds and emotion are writ so large on his face, he conveys everything he needs.
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As fantastic as Foster is, McKenzie is the true standout. She more than holds her own with her co-star, and the young New Zealander is a revelation. Earnest and torn, she loves her father and their life, but she also wants friends — and maybe running water and a bedroom aren’t so bad. Considering the film hinges on their bond, it’s a deft, delicate portrayal of a lovely, if unusual relationship.
Granik never steers the audience with a heavy hand or tells viewers how to feel one way or another. She simply lays out the facts of these characters and their existence and lets them speak for themselves.
Quiet and meticulously constructed, “Leave No Trace” offers a powerful, affecting look at people pushed to the fringes and hanging on by the slimmest of margins. Harrowing and enthralling in equal measures, it’s a challenging and rewarding experience. Let’s hope it doesn’t take Debra Granick another eight years to make her next movie.
★★★½ “Leave No Trace,” with Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Jeff Korber. Directed by Debra Granik, from a screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on a novel by Peter Rock. 108 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements throughout. Opens June 29 at the Meridian.