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Debra Granik: An Oscar Insider With a Film About Outsiders

Bleecker Street’s “Leave No Trace” is one of 2018’s notable film achievements: 100% critics approval on Rotten Tomatoes (207 fresh, 0 rotten), topical material (a veteran with PTSD, people hooked on pain medication), two excellent performances (Ben Foster and young Thomasin McKenzie), a woman director, Debra Granik, and Oscar buzz. What’s not to like?

This is the third narrative fiction feature from Granik, after “Down to the Bone” (2004), which put Vera Farmiga on the map; and “Winter’s Bone” (2010), which was young Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough. Granik also directed the 2014 documentary “Stray Dog,” which fed into “Leave No Trace.”

The writer-director offers visual anthropology, with insight into people who are living outside the mainstream, in worlds rarely explored in film. “That’s not a search criteria when I’m looking for stories,” she says, smiling, “but that’s always where my heart goes. I’m interested in the survival of people who are trying to figure it out, who are in the margins.”

The film centers on a man and his teen daughter, who are forced to move when their makeshift home in an Oregon forest is discovered. Along the way, they encounter social workers, a truck driver, an RV community and others who, for the most part, are generous
and concerned.

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While the U.S. seems sharply divided on many issues, Granik says: “Both red and blue people are coming to this film. Sometimes they say ‘There is a lot of decency here! Where’s the villain?’ Are we surprised at the concept of decency? Most of us help when we can.”

She and co-writer (and fellow producer) Anne Rosellini worked on the script for two years, frequently traveling to the Pacific Northwest to “fact check,” to get input from people living off the grid. They would then incorporate some of that into the script.

The film offers fascinating vignettes, including a five-woman dance troupe, a 4-H Club presentation of rabbits and a beekeeper, as examples of a world that’s usually ignored in movies.

“Leave No Trace” was shot in chronological order, which rarely happens, mostly for financial reasons. “But it was such an asset for Ben and Thom as they built an emotional relationship,” says Granik.

Without giving away the plot, the father-daughter duo have two big scenes late in the film, an angry confrontation and then the final scene; the filmmaker says the chronological shooting helped the actors expose their raw emotions in the later scenes.

Asked if she considers the film to be political, Granik says: “No. I never think ‘How am I going to present my agenda here?’ But in the U.S., if you are depicting lives of people who are poor or hard-working, that is already political. As audiences, we don’t always feel comfortable about watching people who are in financial straits.

“Similarly, if you put a young woman in the film and don’t have a scene of her taking off her clothes, that can be seen as political: It’s a statement on the worthiness of women onscreen, beyond her physical attributes.”

She adds: “I feel very supported by cinephiles and filmgoers with this film.” When originally seeking funding, a common response was, “I don’t think so! How could we get traction with this film?” But Granik adds, “Every time this film finds an audience, it renews my faith. I think ‘Go forward, work hard, find another film!’ I’ve been surprised, relieved and pleased that it’s becoming more of a norm to embrace smaller stories and show up for them.”

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