Leave No Trace

Writer/director Debra Granik needs to make more movies. This is one talented filmmaker. Her debut was the powerful Winter’s Bone, a small picture that got four Oscar nominations and gave Jennifer Lawrence a career (and John Hawkes wasn’t chopped liver in it). In this (with co-writer Anne Rosellini), Granik went with a more minimalistic approach when adapting a Peter Rock book about a father and daughter that lived four years in a park in the Northwest.  

The father is played by Ben Foster, one of the finest actors working today. He broke my heart in The Messenger (Woody Harrelson). He scared me in 3:10 to Yuma and was a terrific loose cannon in Hell or High Water. He’s perfect in this, because Granik didn’t want to write much dialogue. His facial expressions and mannerisms convey a lot. It’s just a shame that it leaves you with some unanswered questions and yearning to know more details about these characters.

The daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) is just as good as Lawrence was in Winter’s Bone, and she’s going to have a great career ahead of her. A few times, she made me think of Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls.

We see the two camping in the woods, playing hide-and-seek (mostly for survival reasons, not for fun), and it reminded me a bit of Captain Fantastic, and how that father put his kids through rigorous survival skills (while also educating them with text books). Yet that movie ended up dealing with legal fights and awkward family feuds. This movie isn’t interested in any sort of…drama.

When authorities finally spot the pair, they’re brought in and questioned. One of the handful of things I liked about this movie was how the characters weren’t cliche. The former soldier suffers PTSD but is never violent or getting drunk and yelling at people in bars. The girl isn’t dumb and socially awkward. She adapts rather quickly to her new surroundings and seems to like her new digs.

I really wish this movie didn’t have so many boring moments in its two hour run time. A few times I thought of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and how amazing that movie was. It dealt with a man and his adopted son, hiding out in the woods. I thought about various ways this movie could’ve been interesting, if just a little conflict were brought into the proceedings.

There are some scenes that will stick with me for months. One of them involved the girl wanting a candy bar and her dad asking if she “needs it” or “wants it” (she replies “both”). Another scene involves the girl discovering bees from a beekeeper, and being mesmerized by them. When she shows her dad the bees and how comfortable she is with them, he looks rather disinterested. The heartbreak on her face was powerful. Although that also made me realize…I just don’t like Foster’s character. And when you’re watching a movie like this, you should be hoping that he doesn’t lose his daughter, not rooting for her to be taken away by the authorities and put in a proper home. Yet after she finally starts meeting strangers, and enjoys her interactions with them (including a possible love interest that raises rabbits)…those are the thoughts you have.

The entire thing was just too low-key. Despite the beautifully shot scenery and terrific performances, this just wasn’t compelling enough. And the fact that it’s getting 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the movie will get a few Oscar nominations…it’s the type of picture critics praise and people ask me, “What was all the hype about?”

They did that the last two years with the Oscar nominations for Call Me By Your Name, Fences, Arrival, Phantom Thread, and Darkest Hour. This will be the movie they ask me about this year.

2 ½ stars out of 5 (which is upsetting my wife, who thinks it should’ve gotten a higher rating).