'Leave No Trace' Follows A Father And Daughter Off The Grid

Jun 29, 2018
Originally published on July 5, 2018 9:15 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Leave No Trace" is inspired by the true story of a father and daughter who lived secretly in a municipal forest in Portland, Ore. It stars Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. And it's from Debra Granik, director of the 2010 Oscar-nominated film "Winter's Bone." That film starred actress Jennifer Lawrence in her breakthrough role. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Debra Granik's "Leave No Trace" centers on a girl in her early teens called Tom, played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, and her dad, Will, played by Ben Foster. He's a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who can't abide society. And so they live in an 8-mile forest on the edge of Portland, Ore., in makeshift camps they dismantle every week. They must leave no trace because residing in a municipal park is illegal. Plus, Tom should be in school. She's OK with this, though. Her mother died when she was very young, and she's never known anything else.

In the early scenes, you feel the uncanny rapport between father and daughter. They're keyed to each other's rhythms, each other's thoughts. But at night, their thoughts diverge. Tom lies awake, listening to Will moan and cry out. And though she knows little else about the world, she knows he needs help. And then, just like that, circumstances change dramatically, and Tom finds herself in a juvenile facility side-by-side with two other girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEAVE NO TRACE")

THOMASIN HARCOURT MCKENZIE: (As Tom) What are you doing?

ALYSSA MCKAY: (As Valerie) I'm making dream boards. You cut out pictures that have to do with your future, so like houses or pets or jobs, stuff like that. Something to look forward to?

RYAN JOINER: (As Tiffany) Like, for example, I want love in my future. So it's just something that we do every week, and it gives us a path.

MCKAY: (As Valerie) So what are you doing here?

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) I wasn't where I was supposed to be, so they took me away. They don't think I was where I was supposed to be.

MCKAY: (As Valerie) OK. Where were you?

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) With my dad in the park.

MCKAY: (As Valerie) So you were homeless, then?

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) No.

MCKAY: (As Valerie) Why else would you be living in the woods? OK, if you had a home, they wouldn't have brought you here.

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) Well, they just don't understand that it was my home.

JOINER: (As Tiffany) Where's your dad now?

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) Think he's somewhere in this building, and he's going to come get me.

MCKAY: (As Valerie) Tiff, do you know anyone whose parents came back for them?

JOINER: (As Tiffany) No.

MCKAY: (As Valerie) Me neither.

EDELSTEIN: The actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is from New Zealand, and at a Q&A after the Sundance Film Festival premiere, her accent was so thick I barely understood a word. Having to talk with an American accent adds something to her performance. Her Tom speaks haltingly, as if language isn't natural and shouldn't be wasted on inessentials. Her face, with its gray, unblinking eyes, seems to rigid with worry for a girl her age. Tom is less upset that her father can't protect her than that she can't protect him. You see why - because Ben Foster's will is in permanent fight-or-flight mode except with fuzzy receptors, so we can't tell signals from static. His daughter is all that grounds him.

"Leave No Trace" is based on the novel "My Abandonment" by Peter Rock, who was inspired by a story in The Oregonian newspaper of a similar father and daughter. I can understand what attracted Debra Granik, who wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini. Its melancholy tone is familiar from Granik's previous features, her 2004 addiction drama "Down To The Bone" and 2010 masterpiece "Winter's Bone." Each film winds towards a grim conclusion that women need to be stronger than the men they know.

Don't misunderstand. Her films aren't full of empowerment slogans, nor are the women portrayed as victims. It's just that men see themselves as protectors or avengers but are apt to be short-sighted, more fragile than they realize. Granik implies that the survival of the species rests with women. "Leave No Trace" turns on Tom's growing realization that she can't survive if she stays yoked to her father's damaged psyche. It's important to say, though, that she doesn't entirely reject his view of society, and neither does Granik, who is plainly fascinated by people who live far off the grid.

After she and her father escape the watchful eye of the Portland authorities tasked by a court to monitor them, they stumble into a community of outsiders living in shacks and trailers in the woods of Washington state. Though it looks godforsaken, the community has its own nurturing ecosystem and a benevolent presence in Dale Dickey, unforgettable as a cruel hill country matriarch in "Winter's Bone." She's a lot nicer here.

Tom has a near-mystical encounter with another woman, a beekeeper who teaches the girl to commune with bees. If that sounds cornball, watching a mass of bees crawl all over someone remains terrifying. And I was still shaking 15 minutes after the devastating climactic scene between Will and Tom. That's why I treasure Debra Granik's work. She can capture the irrevocable harshness of the world and still point the way towards a life of the spirit. Affirmation is rarely so hard won or so indelible.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, rapper, producer screenwriter and film director Boots Riley. He's the son of grassroots activists and frontman for the band The Coup, a hip-hop band whose members describe themselves as a revolutionary music collective. His new film "Sorry To Bother You" starring "Atlanta's" Lakeith Stanfield, is a social satire inspired by his time as a telemarketer. Hope you'll join us.

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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.