Like the scrappy Brown Dirt Cowboy to Viggo Mortensen’s six-kid “Captain Fantastic,” Ben Foster plays a renegade dad who insists on raising his daughter on his own terms in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace.” For fans of the director’s “Winter’s Bone,” which effectively launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career, this unconventional family portrait shares many qualities with the 2010 film, including profound empathy for backwoods characters and the discovery of yet another young talent in Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Just don’t expect the same kind of reception. Apart debuting to receptive audiences at Sundance, this low-key character study will likely leave little to no trace on the cultural conversation.
In recent years, America’s cinematic ecosystem has grown increasingly inhospitable to earnest independent productions like this, films which admirably but ill-advisedly steer clear of those contrivances (such as “likable” protagonists and ticking-clock suspense) that might ensure a more populist reception. Here, Granik seems less interested in finding a marketable hook than in staying true to novelist Peter Rock’s “My Abandonment,” which was itself inspired by the true story of a veteran and his 12-year-old daughter who were discovered living in a makeshift tent in Portland’s Forest Park.
The movie opens in the wilderness, where Will (Foster) and Tom (McKenzie) live like a modern-day Swiss Family Robinson, foraging for mushrooms and whatever food they can find, collecting rainwater to drink, and starting campfires by hand. This could be some postapocalyptic scenario — like the father-child pair seen in that other Viggo Mortensen movie, “The Road” — except that neither nuclear war nor zombie outbreak has forced them into such straits. For whatever reason, Will has chosen this existence for himself, dragging Tom into his antisocial delirium.
When Will needs supplies, he and Tom leave the shelter of the nature reserve, cross a bridge, and buy groceries in town, selling his PTSD meds for what little spending money he needs to survive. Then, back in the woods, he and Tom go back to zero-footprint living, devoting their free time to running survival drills, which have less to do with traditional Boy Scout skills than remaining undetected by cops and park rangers, who would bring their illegal park squatting to an end. And yet, it must, which eventually happens the day that Tom happens to be spotted by a hiker, an act of casual carelessness that transforms their lives completely.
Through it all, Tom appears bright yet obedient, going above and beyond to seek her father’s approval, even to the point of denying her own desires. (A scene in which she asks Will’s permission to keep a seahorse pendant discovered along one of the park trails nicely illustrates the emergence of her own personality, which will sooner or later be too much for him to control.) Meanwhile, intense as ever, yet considerably warmer than the near-sociopathic roles he so often plays, Foster makes for a stern and demanding father figure, protective of his daughter above all else.
Still, few would argue that there’s anything healthy in Will’s extreme parenting methods. It’s one thing to reject TV and other forms of consumer-culture brainwashing in favor of home-schooling one’s kids, but even that requires a home, whereas his approach puts them both at considerable risk of disease, injury, and wild-animal attack — judgments which the film never articulates outright, instead trusting audiences to apply them on their own. After all, what parent could possibly watch young Tom, shivering and starving in a tent, surrounded by wild animals, and condone Will’s choices, with so many resources available to them in nearby Portland?
Even so, the movie treats Will and Tom with such respect, it could practically be seen as an endorsement of their unconventional arrangement. While courtroom scenes or cat-and-mouse chases in which Will tries to outrun authorities would have made for a more routine kind of film, without them, there’s a listless, almost meandering nature to the story. The film’s conflict is clear — this is no way to raise a child, and allowed to continue in this fashion, Will risks both his life and Tom’s — and yet there’s no sense of where the script it headed, and no urgency to its resolution.
After being discovered in the nature preserve, Will and Tom are both interrogated by social workers. Our sympathy is with them, and yet, the authorities seem to have a point: Tom needs a chance to interact with other people, a fact McKenzie so effortlessly conveys via the wide-eyed curiosity Tom shows toward a world she has been taught to distrust, but which now holds considerable appeal for her — including not only boys, but the prospect of making friends her age. As far back as she can remember, she has been deprived of toys, but now, as in that simple yet revealing earlier scene with the seahorse necklace, she takes simple pleasure in owning a pair of plastic ponies.
Though Granik’s approach is reminiscent of the sensitive, stripped-down style of Kelly Reichardt’s work (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Certain Women”), by reteaming with Scottish cinematographer Michael McDonough (who shot not only “Winter’s Bone,” but also Terence Davies’ radiant “Sunset Song” and the gritty prison drama “Starred Up”), she creates a richer visual environment in which to dwell. Without spoiling the particulars, the first and last acts of “Leave No Trace” take place in the woods, neither one the Walden that Will seems to imagine. Between those two remote outposts, the film has a considerable amount of terrain to cover, both geographical and in the minds of its characters, particularly that of Harcourt McKenzie’s Tom, who is torn between family loyalty and the undeniable appeal of civilization.
Though Granik is clearly engaged with the causes and conditions of homelessness, she seems only nominally interested in the specifics of what inspired Will’s break from society. Early on, Will mentions the passing of his wife, which seems to have predated his break from society, and late in the film, a stash of newspaper clippings reveal a detail or two about his military service. For audiences, however, comprehending these limited clues won’t miraculously fix whatever broke inside Will, though it gives us a slight advantage over the well-meaning social worker (Dana Millican) who does her best to respect his independence, while steering him toward a living situation that would be more stable for Tom. As an actor, Foster possesses such an intense energy, he easily dominates from the outset. For young Harcourt McKenzie, the challenge comes in ever so gradually asserting Tom’s identity, until such point that she can stand up to him as an equal.