By the time awards season rolls around, the films left standing in the best picture category are usually more obscure. Most of the time those films get buried and crammed together at the end of the season, which makes it difficult to sift through at the box office. Fortunately, this summer more than its fair share of blockbuster alternatives. While Leave No Trace focuses its emotional energy on a unique paternal bond, themes of freedom and self discovery are closely tied to the primary narrative.
The story follows a father and daughter who live a happy but disconnected life in the Oregon wilderness. While their lives are seemingly idyllic, they have a rigid routine to ensure their lifestyle remains that way. One small mistake sets off a course of events that alters the life they worked so hard to cultivate and maintain. As things begin to unravel, the pair fight desperately to salvage the remnants of their old lives while trying to reconcile their differences as they grow apart.
Debra Granik broke onto the scene with Winter’s Bone in 2010 and, along with her writing partner Anne Rosellini, was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by the Academy, but Granik hasn’t directed much since. Again teaming with Rosellini, this time the pair adapted the Peter Rock novel My Abandonment. The story has a lot of angles thematically, but primarily focuses on a father trying to raise his daughter. The is very adult oriented, but not because of profanity, violence or gratuitous nudity, and that’s thanks to an excellent script backed by strong performances. If I didn’t know the film carried a PG rating, I would have never stopped to think about it. There’s a lot of ground to cover, especially in building the relationship between father and daughter, but it comes together smoothly with good scene setting and poignant dialogue. There isn’t a bunch of needless exposition, you just get enough for your mind to fill in the blanks, and that’s a sign of skilled writers. This was a unique story that will get to the core of who you are, one of my favorites this year, and Granik and Rosellini could very well be looking at another Best Original Screenplay nod.
When it comes to strong performances, Ben Foster continues to be one of the most underappreciated actors of his generation. By utilizing an incredibly versatile energy spectrum he’s able to manifest a spirituous screen presence. Just seeing his name attached to this project gave me confidence and he didn’t disappoint, delivering a powerful and moving portrait of a father trying to do what’s best for his daughter in the only way he knows how. He’s no stranger to playing soldiers and in this case he plays Will, a military veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who is raising his daughter in a nature preserve in Portland, Oregon. He’s had to cut some corners to provide, but he’s done and excellent job. While his PTSD isn’t the primary focus of the film, or the character, Foster breathed a life into Will that not many actors could. He’s been overlooked by the major awards shows despite some excellent performances throughout his career but, as of right now, he has to be leading the pack for Best Actor.
Thomasin McKenzie has quite a few credits on her resume, but this is her most prominent role to date. She plays Will’s daughter, Tom, who is a little bit blissfully ignorant of the larger world outside of their spot in nature. McKenzie does more than hold her own alongside Foster and the pair cultivated a very endearing relationship without the benefit of extensive foundation work. That’s a testament to the bond they built with one another as performers and it certainly comes through the screen. Her character is smart beyond her years and much of that comes from the screenplay, but it took a skilled performer to make it believable. Many of those moments are confrontational bits where she has to engage with authority figures and, more or less, put them in their places. This was a superb performance from a very talented young actress. She is probably in the running for some end of the year awards also, but the Best Supporting Actress category tends to get very competitive down the stretch. Regardless, this film is going to catapult her career and we’ll be seeing more of her. She’s already got three future projects in the pipeline with The King due out in 2019.
Low budget films such as this need to thrive on creativity and quality. To bring the visual aesthetic to life, Granik turned to collaborator Michael McDonough to direct photography. When the characters are out in nature the film is beautifully shot, capturing an intense variety of greens where the natural lighting played a big role out in the elements. McDonough did an excellent job with the shot selection to maximize depth of field perspective. In an environment that could easily get redundant, it never felt like you were seeing the same shot twice. Erin Aldridge Orr had a tough job as costume designer on this project. On the one hand, the film is contemporary, but on the other, the wardrobes needed to capture specificity without history to lean on. While I doubt she is going to get recognized for her efforts here, the costume design was fundamental in character building and serves to heighten the disparity between the characters we associate with as the audience and those figures of authority who act as an oppressive catalyst.
This was certainly one of the better films this year and climbed my list of favorites in a hurry. It’s incredibly well made from the top down and adheres to “less is more” idiom which I feel is increasingly rare in cinema today. A strong script, with a focused vision, backed by strong performances gave us one of the better film this year. I get the feeling it will be forgotten by the end of the year, but I’m hoping it can reach enough people to gain some lasting appeal and staying power.
Recommendation: If you have the opportunity, do yourself a favor and go see this movie. It moved into wide release so it will be easier to find than when I watched it. If you liked Into the Wild then this is cut from the same cloth, but less about the outdoors adventure. The primary theme here is very much about family and it hits the mark in that department…but be ready to shed a few tears. This works as a family film, but I could see it being boring for young children. Parents will enjoy it and, depending on your kids maturity level, it may be the kind of film you can bond over.