Granik has now made three fiction films (there’s also 2005’s Down to the Bone), all of which share an aptitude for small-scale storytelling, an incredible feel for realistically depicting environments and communities, and quiet but astonishing performances. She’s one of the most talented directors of acting today, and in Leave No Trace, she’s getting subdued, career-best work from Foster (a performer who tends toward the melodramatic), alongside McKenzie’s breakout and a touching supporting turn from Dale Dickey.
The story, adapted by Granik and Rosellini from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, begins with Will and Tom in the woods. They play chess, forage for food, and generally avoid people, occasionally scrounging up money by selling Will’s PTSD medication (he’s a military veteran of an unnamed war) on the black market. Granik is careful not to idealize their solitary lifestyle even as she finds the humor and love in their situation, which is presented as a simpler alternative to regular society rather than as a total retreat from it.
Still, there’s no question that Will is haunted by his past. The film spares the audience from plodding flashbacks, or sensationalized nightmares, relying on Foster to communicate his character’s general unease. The sound of cars, planes, and city bustle (the father and daughter occasionally hike into Portland for supplies) is jarringly loud in the movie’s overall mix, heightening the anxiety anytime Will and Tom are out of their element. But before long, they’re discovered by park rangers and ripped from their home; the rest of Leave No Trace sees them trying to find a new one, and follows the tensions that surface between them as a result.
The script dodges many of the clichés that viewers might expect from such a story. It refuses to descend into outright bleakness or violence. And Granik doesn’t render nature with some kind of poetic transcendence: She sees beauty in the woods as well as the harshness of life there. She also understands the comforts of the more “civilized” existence the government tries to impose on Will and Tom, and the pressures that come with that way of life.
Will is a character who never seems quite comfortable unless he’s with his daughter, outside, free of the more stifling aspects of society. It’s Tom who’s truly caught between worlds. She is her father’s daughter, and is happy living with him, but he hasn’t brainwashed her to a survivalist philosophy. As Leave No Trace progresses, its two characters stay together though their outlooks begin to diverge. Will is seeking a restoration of the balance he had largely achieved at the start of the film, while Tom starts wondering if some compromise—a life with a little extra community and infrastructure—would suit her better. Granik plays that growing conflict out with love and understanding, as Will and Tom journey north from the more restrictive farming town they’re initially placed in and come across other alternative living situations.