What it's about: Tom is a young girl who lives with her father Will deep in the woods of a public park outside of Portland, Oregon. They keep their lives simple, only going into the city when they need to, and they don't stay in one place for long. When Tom is spotting by a jogger, their lives are turned upside down. They are forced into society, given a place to stay in exchange for Will's work on a tree farm. Possibly for the first time in her life, Tom has a place in a community with other people her age. But will her father be able to handle following society's rules or will his instinct to run affect his daughter once again?
Where films fit in with the year tends to change over the course of the year but at this moment Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is my favorite film of 2018 so far. It is glorious, devastating drama that is also strangely life affirming. The long-awaited narrative follow-up to Granik's Winter's Bone, Leave No Trace shares a similar environment and stakes, but is a much richer and diverse emotional experience.
The film didn't immediately strike me as a coming-of-age drama, though it technically fits in the genre, with Tom's journey of coming into society. Tom is at an interesting age given her strange circumstances. She's starting to become an independent person, able to question her father and find her own interests. She is still completely loyal and trusting in his decisions, but that is starting to change.
Thomasin McKenzie's performance probably won't be on my end-of-year lists but she is quite good and is able to stand across from the venerable character actor Ben Foster. Their chemistry is great, especially in non-verbal moments.
Even without an incredible amount of plot, there isn't much explicit backstory given to the characters -- it is all there, though nothing you learn about Tom or Will comes out unnaturally. Really, how they came to this situation isn't as important as spending time with them and seeing where they are going.
When Will decides to leave the farm house there is a mix of emotions. In a way, it is heartbreaking because they could have led a good life there and Tom clearly was interested in the socialization. But, of course, Will's pain and perspective is completely understood.
It is an interesting plot turn that it is only when they actively decide to leave a more comfortable life when things begin to fall apart.
The natural response from everyone they meet is that they are running from something or are in some kind of trouble. It would probably be easier to understand, a more digestible story. It probably would have been easier for the film to make that the case, as well. It could offer some inherent stakes or character motivates, even making the film more like a thriller. Leave No Trace doesn't need it though to be compelling.
In a very strange way, Leave No Trace is really life affirming. It returns constantly to the idea of kindness of strangers, even toward a man who can't trust others. There are no villains in Leave No Trace despite a slew of potential ones -- no one takes advantage of their struggle, attempts to break them apart. Honestly, there is hard to think of anyone in their situation being treated so fairly.
Toward the end of the film there is a pretty clear metaphor of a bee colony that could have soured the emotional complexity. It works, however, because Tom understands the metaphor and can use it to help her father understand the world a little better, too.
Some potential spoilers on the ending ahead. The ending moments are really challenging on an emotional and character level. I don't know if the characters make the right moral decisions and I don't know how much I can judge them. It is such a pivotal developmental moment for Tom, one of the first times she makes a completely independent decision and so there is something beautiful about it. It could have been a tragic ending and in some ways it is. Tom and Will are no doubt better together. It isn't "happily ever after." But it makes so much sense within the context of their story.
I desperately want Granik and Kelly Reichardt to collaborate, maybe make a film with two parts that connect in some thematic or narrative way. They have clear common interests of struggle and nature and they draw their characters so beautiful. While Leave No Trace seems very similar to films like Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, they aren't the same filmmaker. I think Reichardt works more in the effect of a harsh nature on people where Granik focuses a bit more on how people work with each other in a harsh nature. It would be fascinating to see their approaches coming together. But I'm also cool if they both just continue to make more of their beautiful films.