It doesn't take long for "Leave No Trace" to tell you that it's a well written, low-key, adult story. There's the languid pacing that leaves you breathing room to observe things for yourself and interpret them from your own viewpoint. There's the absorbing, insightful way its leading characters quietly interact, and the sense of conviction about the challenging subject matter.
The admirably restrained director Debra Granik, whose work is so straightforward it's eccentric, deals with a troubled veteran and his 13-year-old daughter living off the grid. Don't let the unconventional lifestyle trigger your anxiety neurotransmitters. This is a loving, tender, protective family unit determined to remain side by side as long as possible. How deeply that does and doesn't work out is the film's drama, with results making your heart pound in ways Marvel movies never do.
Will, played by the long-underappreciated character virtuoso Ben Foster, has carried post-traumatic stress disorder home from his time in the military. There are no scenes of Mideast war slipped in here to give him a visible back story. That's dead weight you'd find in a shallower film. What we learn about him comes from the way he interacts with his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a luminous New Zealand-born discovery with a flawless American accent).
Will and Tom are a solid team as they collect water, grow their own food, gather mushrooms, fold up and relocate their tents and practice guarding against unwelcome arrivals like hungry animals. What looks like an ambitious season of camping in the woods gradually comes into focus as Will's long-term commitment to raise his girl in a peaceful place far away from American society.
Will keeps their homesteading all but invisible in Forest Park, a nature preserve on the mountains just west of Portland. There are occasional trips into the noisy city when Will visits Veterans Affairs, fills his prescriptions for pills he doesn't take, then sells them to a dealer for grocery money. The authorities don't enter their lives until they are discovered by a jogger and caught for the minor crime of living on public land.
Returned to society and interviewed by social services, they're treated with genuine concern and touching compassion. It's against fundamental rules to raise a child Will's way, even though Tom's case worker is stunned at how well he has educated her. Will's mental condition is studied, and father and daughter are allotted residence in a commune operated by a lumberman who takes Will on his staff to cut Christmas trees.
Tom is puzzled, then intrigued by meeting a boy her own age for the first time, and she finds the idea of having a roof over her head intriguing. But renegade Will has difficulty dealing with being confined indoors, and even more trouble adjusting to the helicopters that haul off fallen trees.
It's never explicitly stated why those whirling blades trouble him. It doesn't need to be. There are no cues from the soundtrack informing us what we ought to feel and why.
It's our privilege to weigh Will's uncomfortable reaction to humanity (which we see here at its best; absolutely no one is less than kind to this family) and Tom's fawn-like openness and curiosity around others. And it's our duty to consider what should happen when Tom and Will see their paths diverge. This is a family love story of surprising power and depth.
Eight years ago Granik gave us the unforgettable Ozark drama "Winter's Bone," which introduced us to Jennifer Lawrence's gifts in a way no other performance in her career has matched. Granik's new film is not nearly as bleak. What the two movies have in common is their detailed attention to the social and physical lives of marginal people, and acting that is honest to the core.
And, like the earlier film, this one also debuts an actress of remarkable promise. McKenzie, who appeared in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," captures Tom's soul with breathtaking tenderness. She is one of those stellar young talents who can't be considered a rookie in any manner, and since her heart-touching performance here, she has been added to several star-studded upcoming films. But since there's nothing stronger than a first impression, don't miss the opportunity to see this.