Leave No Trace
Eight years ago, writer/director Debra Granik gained recognition with her first feature “Winter’s Bone” (2010), which was set among the marginalized folks of the Ozarks and made a star of Jennifer Lawrence. Granik has now completed her second fiction film, which shares with “Winter’s Bone” a stern outdoor setting and a central role for a young woman. And, while the new picture plays in a quieter mode, the director has produced another winner (The film is rated “PG,” runs 109 mins, and opens in DC on July 6).
Widower Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), have lived undetected for years in Forest Park, a woods on the edge of Portland, Oregon. Their shelter is crude tarps and wet sleeping bags, their food variable and often raw, but their bond is strong. There are hints about his troubled past in the military, but we gain little backstory. Tom’s world is utterly defined by her father, she never having known her mother. They dip into the outside world occasionally, but Will distrusts civilization and fiercely treasures his independent life, a value he projects on to his daughter. Yet their situation is illegal—trespassing on public land—and local police find and uproot them and turn them over to a local social service agency.
They must adapt to their new surroundings in a modest trailer, and though Tom is intrigued by their new setting and Will is offered a job, he still finds this more orderly life confining. His frustration leads him to escape that community to return with Tom to the wilderness. But their situation, in a forest at higher altitude, is even more forbidding than before and leads to a serious accident. Helped by medical personnel, they are eventually taken in by a woman running a van and RV park for a motley collection of independent forest dwellers. It is here where Tom’s new sense of community is fostered and her relationship to her father tested.
The screenplay is by Granik and Anne Rosellini (co-writer of “Winter’s Bone) and was adapted from Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment.” It adopts the first-person perspective of the novel, taking Tom’s point of view, but without a narrative over voice, and that presentation from the child’s viewpoint provides a large part of the film’s power. Thus, Will is seen from the outside, a man hard to read or comprehend, while we come to realize that Tom’s life in a community with others may offer promise of a different future.
The demeanor of “Leave No Trace” recalls Granik’s earlier film: rugged and palpably real locales populated by utterly believable actors. The cast simply inhabits their roles, such as the sympathetic social worker (Dana Millican), and the welcoming RV manager (Dale Dickey). Ben Foster’s Will is appropriately terse and tense, a tortured soul taking on the skittish life of the animals he lives among. Yet, even with his grimness and insecurity, you sense his love for Tom.
Young McKenzie is the revelation here. Aged 17 when the film was made, she comes from an acting family in her native New Zealand (her mom is a film actress), and this is her first starring role and the first time she has worked out of her country. Her presence, as a soft-spoken but ever aware young woman, captivates, with a wonderful mix of plain-faced naiveté and burgeoning curiosity. Granik has found the right visage and voice to adorn another worthy effort.
British actress Andrea Riseborough has proved in the last decade to be one of the most versatile and unpredictable performers in cinema. Recently, she has personified a naïve waitress in “Brighton Rock” (2010), an IRA sympathizer in “Shadow Dancer” (2012), an ambitious actress in “Birdman” (2014), and just last year, Billie Jean King’s love interest in “Battle of the Sexes” as well as a feisty concert pianist in “The Death of Stalin.” Now, with “Nancy,” she has a film to herself. (The film, which opened June 29, is not rated and runs 87 minutes).
Nancy Freeman (Riseborough) is a tough nut to crack. Thirty-something, she mopes around the shabby home she shares with her disabled mother (Ann Dowd). Nancy has a temp job and a cat, but few prospects and no friends, and she fibs to enliven her life. Her literary ambitions only result in a welter of rejection slips. Still, she yearns to make connections, shown by a clumsy attempt to reach out online to a despondent man (John Leguizamo) who has read her blog.
Then comes a break in her fortunes. A TV report tells of a five-year-old girl, Brook Lynch, kidnapped 30 years before, whose parents are marking the anniversary by announcing a scholarship fund in her name. The report shows a generated image of how the young Brook might appear at 35, and Nancy thinks it is she. Surely she is this Brook, stolen away and mired in a family not good enough for her. When her mother suddenly dies, Nancy calls the Lynches to say she believes she is their long-lost daughter. After initial reluctance, Ellen Lynch (J. Smith Cameron) invites her to their home, where Nancy is smitten by their well-off, academic lifestyle.
Ellen, a comparative literature professor, finds ways to connect with Nancy (they are both writers), and is filled with hope that her child has been found. She wants so to believe. Husband Leo (Steve Buscemi), a psychologist, is more skeptical, starting with an online check on Nancy, but he treats her decently and agrees with Ellen to let her stay with them until her identity can be verified. He calls the authorities to perform a DNA test for all three, and they await the results anxiously.
The above plot outline reads like a downer, and the film could be viewed that way. Still, there is much that is poignant once Nancy moves in with the couple. Director Christina Choe (in her first feature) generates pitch-perfect performances from Smith and Buscemi as the Lynches, with Smith particularly affecting as a long-grieving mother whose guarded stance stands ready to melt with the chance to thoroughly embrace what could be her long-lost child.
And what of the chameleon Riseborough? The actress’s performance is often monotonic, a woman with a spaced look, mumbling in a hushed voice; a woman that no one would likely notice. Her smiles are few and her emotions are ever in check, except for one episode of genuine panic when she thinks her cat Paul is lost in the woods. This dour stance is a choice that her director and she have made, and, for this reviewer, it appears the right one for this movie.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.