Debra Granik arrives in Cannes in the Directors Fortnight section with her silent but strong follow-up feature to Winter’s Bone. Like the previous film, Leave No Trace has a young female protagonist who has excellent survival skills and both are in a rural setting, at least superficially.
Based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, the story is about a thirteen-year-old girl, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), and her father Bill (Ben Foster). They live in a nature park in Oregon and are a self-sufficient unit: they have a little kitchen garden, plenty of hidey holes and excellent knife skills. The first two films that come to mind are Captain Fantastic, in which we see a father bringing up his children in the back end of beyond, and Hanna, with the father-daughter duo practising their essential survival training. Yet unlike those movies, this film is neither mawkish nor violent. It is an incredibly quiet film whose emotional power creeps up on you while you watch.
As with the other films it superficially resembles, there is no mother. Tom talks about her and tries to wheedle information out of Bill. What was her favourite colour? Yellow, like Tom’s. “Maybe that’s why it’s my favourite colour”, muses Tom. There is also no school for Tom and no friendships. Bill has some dealings with a group of ex-servicemen living on their own campsite in the park. And this is how we learn of Bill’s own military background: when Tom complains of hunger, Bill takes her to Portland for some supermarket shopping and to pick up his bag of prescription pills, which he sells to buys basics that cannot be foraged.
When we see Bill and Tom huddle up together in their tiny tent, there is no unease at their proximity and there is no sense that Bill is particularly mentally unstable. They are simply living a simple existence that entails minimum engagement with the outside world. When all of this is abruptly curtailed, there is a genuine fear that things will go horribly wrong. Instead, the father and child are given an opportunity to set up home and gradually ease themselves back into ‘normal’ society.
What the film does so well is question what normal means, for example when we see women performing a dance routine at church, follow some children in their competitive rabbit-rearing class or see a young man gormlessly taking selfies on a bus. When Bill and Tom stumble on a community living in RVs in rural Washington, it is clear that there are less extreme means of living off-grid away from the madness of modern society. In fact, this RV village is seen as a rustic idyll, peopled by kind and easy-going inhabitants, many of whom have had to shed the burden of their own pasts.
Granik never lets melodrama enter this film. Bill doesn’t have a breakdown; Tom doesn’t have a massive teenage rebellion; there are no enforced separations due to third-party interference. Instead, outsiders are generally benevolent and caring beings. There is plenty of humour, some of it dark and often at the expense of those living more conventional lives.
By keeping the film quiet, Granik manages to deal with incredibly complex issues, such as homelessness and PTSD. She does so by telling a small story and focusing on these two characters. Ben Foster, who always fills his characters with humanity, puts in a lovely performance as the dad who wishes to leave no trace, while Thomasin McKenzie has a wide-eyed gaze that is never naïve. Her portrayal of this girl who has to grow up and make difficult choices is nuanced and understated.
The lush forest homes that the two inhabit in those hippy-dippiest of states, Oregon and Washington, are depicted as verdant havens from a noisy, strange world. It seems unfair that to live such a life could be deemed inappropriate or illegal. Yet it is clear that the title does not refer to being environmentally friendly, but being in a constant state of flux, unable to withstand permanence or roots despite being rooted to the land. Granik bookends with a close-up of a spider’s web. It is a complex, delicate-looking thing that is actually stronger than it looks, much like the protagonist of this beautiful, quiet film.