Is "home" a fluid idea, or a defined place in our world? Does it really matter if trees and a blue sky represent the roof instead of a structural design? Debra Granik's Leave No Trace tackles that conversation head on, asking the audience to debate the theory of what is right and wrong when it comes to someone's "home".
For Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), home is a small piece of a state park in Portland, Oregon. The great outdoors for both of them, at least that is what Will thinks. The father suffers from PTSD and auctions off medication for the condition to fund their woods-located housing. The young Tom will follow her dad anywhere it seems, but when a chance encounter with a runner brings down their carefully crafted world, the two find themselves at odds with their future.
One of the best parts of the movie, outside of the superb acting from Foster and newcomer McKenzie, is the fact that the screenplay prefers to shut up instead of preach at you. Granik, who adapted Peter Rock's novel, "My Abandonment", with Anne Rosellini, keeps the dialogue sparse and meaningful, only getting loud enough to steer the plot in a certain direction. Granik and Foster reportedly cut 40 percent of Will's lines, and that works perfectly because the actor's gift to the world is his laser-type focus that sits right outside intense despair.
When Will and Tom are shuttled into some lodging unit and eventually escape back into the woods, Granik lets the actor's faces and outside noises and scenery construct your inner courtroom of judgment, and you bet every parent or parent-to-be will battle themselves over the proper home for a young woman like McKenzie's Tom. The filmmaker knows this and lets the actors lead the way. The more confidence a director has in her leads, the less showy dialogue he/she gives them. Leave No Trace works off its restraint, hitting you hardest during its most quiet moments.
The movie's pace isn't for the sleepy one. It takes its time in building momentum, but once it reaches the second half and the tone is set, the viewer will be dialed in. Handling similar themes as 2016's Captain Fantastic, which also explored the divide between living in the woods and needing to be plugged into a commercialized society, Leave No Trace leaves little doubt of its craft on the screen.
Expect to hear McKenzie's name during awards season. I'd throw her name into the discussion based off two scenes and one heartbreaking line of dialogue late in the film that sums up Tom's independence and desire to be free. Again, she does a lot with a little and together with Foster, forms a true alliance on screen that doesn't carry an ounce of vanity. If she's new, I want to know where her GPS is taking her next. There's a talent, and the last time Granik did a film, the emergence of Jennifer Lawrence occurred with Winter's Bone.
How Leave No Trace ends is sublime and perfect. Granik doesn't have to force anything with Will and Tom. When you build up a story on atmosphere and minimal yet powerful acting, the third act pretty much draws up itself. I'd get ready to cry or at least be sad.
Stuck inside the whole thing is a conversation about the treatment of war veterans when they return home. The reason Will glues his DNA to the trees and bushes instead of a standard bed is due to the fact that it levels out the noise in his head from the war. For him, the stress relief is the quiet friendliness of the woods and not the constant chatter of human beings wanting to break down his walls of silence. What happens to Will and another helpful vet in the film named Blane happens to many souls when they return home. After standing up for our country, they are given next to nothing to stand on. It's sad and pathetic.
In the end, home is where you make it, and not what someone tells you it is. For some, that exists in a house with a sturdy roof that keeps water out of the basement. For others, it's a tent with a good cover to gather water for drinking the next day.
Leave No Trace should start a healthy conversation while providing a heartfelt story that doesn't ring false even once during its 110 minutes.
*The film is currently available on Redbox, iTunes, and for purchase on DVD/Blu-ray.