There’s a fair amount of pressure on Debra Granik’s new indie: Every film she’s taken to Sundance has been a winner, starting with her short “Snake Feed” in 1998. In 2004, her celebrated drama “Down to the Bone” brought awards for both her and then-up-and-coming actress Vera Farmiga. And 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” went on to earn four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture and another for the film’s little-known lead, Jennifer Lawrence.
So yeah, comparisons will be made. But are they fair? Not really. It would be unlikely for any director to achieve the same sort of commercial triumph twice in a row. But it would also be understandably tempting to try.
So kudos to this subtle and intelligent filmmaker, for avoiding the enticement to lock in awards by hitting easy targets. Even the title is suggestive of Granik’s restrained approach: “Leave No Trace” is gentle and intimate and personal, the sort of film that feels more like a passion project than a calculated career move.
That said, lead Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is still likely to be the subject of breathless festival profiles this week, as journalists wonder whether she’s the next Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a silly and meaningless question, of course. So let’s say this instead: the New Zealand-born teen turns in a performance that’s nuanced and lovely, and stands confidently on its own.
McKenzie plays Tom, the 13-year-old daughter of a laconic but loving veteran named Will (Ben Foster). The two have clearly dropped out of society, but Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini (“Winter’s Bone”), working from Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment,” initially keep us guessing as to Will’s motivations. All we know is that they’re living in the woods: Portland’s vast and beautiful Forest Park, to be specific.
Before long, though, park rangers find them, social workers interfere and strangers get involved. Tom and Will are moved into an anodyne house on a tree farm, where she’s expected to adjust to modern life, and he’s required to work a wood chipper. This experiment is inevitably short-lived; Will’s out of there as soon as his boss invites him to church and Tom’s social worker enrolls her in school.
So where will they go? In the past, their destination has always been up to Will. But he raised his daughter to be compassionate and independent, and she’s old enough to view their situation through a new lens. While Will sees safety in a nomadic existence, Tom finds unexpected solace in the concept of community.
Granik is a strikingly observational director, and she takes great care to avoid leading viewers in any direction. She also surprises us by omission: despite many opportunities, she refuses to offer up any convenient villain. There’s no angry ex-wife demanding custody of Tom, say, or criminal past waiting to entrap Will. Even the bureaucrats who pull the pair out of their self-created Eden behave in ways counter to our expectations. Moreover, we’re consistently disposed to root for two potentially opposing desires.
Indeed, while the lush cinematography from Michael McDonough (“Sunset Song”) inclines us toward Will’s wide-open havens, we can see why Tom connects with a hamlet of idiosyncratic hippies (led by an always-welcome Dale Dickey).
Granik took a big risk here, making a purposefully small film that rejects familiar notions of dramatic conflict. But her approach works well enough that the most jarring note becomes Foster’s movie-star presence.
He tries hard, but we feel it: we’re watching an innately charismatic actor create a quietly troubled character. Would a rougher-edged unknown have been too much of a commercial gamble? Perhaps, but it might have been a better fit with the rest of the film’s low-key, naturalistic intentions.
Even so, it’s easy to get caught up in Will and Tom’s thorny, off-the-grid lives. And it’s comforting to know that if there’s anywhere the offbeat choices of these characters (and their creators) are likely to thrive, it’s in the high-altitude embrace of a festival like Sundance.