In the three feature films she has made in the last 14 years, director Debra Granik has excelled at creating tight, character-driven dramas about individuals at the edge of society and the end of their ropes.
She did it with her 2004 debut, “Down to the Bone,” about a suburban mom trying to maintain her life amid a wicked cocaine addiction. She did it again with “Winter’s Bone” (2010), about a Kentucky teen trying to keep her family together while hunting down her drug-dealer father. And now she does it, in beautifully rendered strokes, in the father-daughter drama “Leave No Trace.”
Adapting Salt Lake City-born author Peter Rock’s “My Abandonment,” “Leave No Trace” begins with Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), his 13-year-old daughter, camping in the woods. It soon becomes clear that this isn’t some weekend adventure, but the way they live all the time — picking mushrooms, tending the campfire, and practicing being unseen to the human eye. It also becomes clear that their forest shelter is actually in a park, not too far from civilization in Oregon.
One day, park rangers and police find Will and Tom, and their forest idyll is over. Will is arrested, and both are treated to the county’s hospitality — until a kindly counselor (Dana Millican) sets them up with living quarters on a Christmas tree farm, with Will finding work for the farm’s owner (Jeff Kober). Tom tries to adapt to this new life, of 4H meetings and regular school hours, even though Will’s teaching has put her several grades above her age group. But Will wants to hit the road, outrunning demons about which Granik and writing partner Anne Rosellini need only drop hints.
Granik and her regular cinematographer, Michael McDonough, let the tranquil, but sometimes menacing, woods of Oregon infuse the film. The locations, starting in the wild but coming back to pre-fab suburbia, become a fever chart of Will’s melancholy — he’s at peace outdoors, restless in artificial light — and a battleground for Tom’s rapidly growing independence.
Foster (“Hell or High Water”) seems incapable of giving a bad performance — bad choices, maybe, like “Warcraft,” but never a bad performance. Here, he subtly conveys Will’s internal mental imbalance and his fierce determination to make right by his daughter.
But Granik’s other strength is in finding new talent — “Down to the Bone” was the first starring role for Vera Farmiga, and “Winter’s Bone” gave the world its first good look at Jennifer Lawrence — and she’s got a winner in McKenzie. The New Zealand native shows a vulnerability and a coltish spunk that grows as Tom emerges from her father’s shadow. McKenzie will be a name people remember, as “Leave No Trace” will leave an indelible mark on audience’s memories.
★★★1/2 (out of four)
‘Leave No Trace’
Opened June 29 in select markets, opens Friday, July 13, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City and the Megaplex Thanksgiving Point in Lehi. Rated PG for thematic material throughout. Running time: 109 minutes.