A lot of Debra Granik’s remarkable second feature is spent without warmth. Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) have grown accustomed to this, having spent a significant amount of time living in the national parks of Portland, Oregon. There, they have built a home: A living area, with a fire pit and a tarp over their heads; a tent cleverly hidden in the brush; even a proper kitchen by these standards, complete with a propane stove (though they rarely use it, opting instead for cooking mushrooms over the fire). They play games of chess, and have routine drills where they hide from the imagined authorities, those who wish to rip them out of this home and place them into the world. It is easy to watch these scenes and imagine how wet their feet must be, how cold their hands. How can they sleep in that small tent, with nothing more than a thin vinyl to protect them from the coyotes that routinely rummage their camp at night? To our eyes, it cannot be a home. But we are wrong.
Eventually, because life is cruel and nothing good lasts for long, Tom and Will are caught, spotted by a jogger. They are ripped from their home and placed in foster care, separated and waiting. Here, Granik pulls off a small, important surprise: Tom and Will are not saved. They do not enter the land of electricity and bunk beds and hot showers as shell-shocked survivors. Instead, they bristle. They did not live in those woods because they were forced to, be it financially or emotionally. They lived there because it was their choice. It was their home. And now they must find a new one.
Leave No Trace is light on plot, heavy on heart. It deals in small moments, though no less monumental than anything else produced this year. Quickly after being discovered by park rangers, Tom and Will move into a small ranch house, owned by a farmer. It has two bedrooms, a microwave, and a roof over their head. In comparison to where they came from, it is a mansion. And yet they view it as a cell. “We can still think our own thoughts,” Will tells Tom. It is as if living on the grid means sacrificing ownership of one’s self.
Together, Foster and McKenzie form a lived-in pair, reacting and responding to one another like practiced dance partners. Ms. McKenzie, in particular, soars as Tom. This is unsurprising. Granik has an eye for talent — she is responsible for Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout in Winter’s Bone, after all. McKenzie is no different. Her face is wide open to us, containing a kind of vulnerability that seems wrong to look upon. She is giving us everything, and we take it in thankfully. Jennifer Lawrence got her first Academy Award nomination for Winter’s Bone. I do not know if Thomasin McKenzie will share the same luck, but I do know that she deserves it.
This has been a hard year. Perhaps that is political of me to say, but I think that in some way or another, we all know it to be true. There is a sense of displacement around us, a shift in foundation. Where do we go when we no longer recognize where we are? After I finished Leave No Trace, I could not help but think of two other films released this year, Lean on Pete and The Rider, and the common thread they all weave. Three films about life on the fringes, and the search for home, and the idea that, just maybe, we’ll all find where we’re going. It could be mere coincidence that these films came out within the same year. But somehow, it feels fated. A small touch of warmth in an otherwise cold place.
And so I find myself stuck on a scene in Leave No Trace. It is a small, unassuming one, that bears little spoilers so I feel comfortable telling you about it. It comes somewhere in the film’s final third, when Tom and Will find themselves in front of a bee hive. Tom holds her hands out, hovering just above the buzzing mass. The skin of her palms seems impossibly exposed. “You can feel the warmth,” she remarks. There is a happiness in her voice.