Friday, 20 July 2018

Leave No Trace: NZIFF Review

Leave No Trace: NZIFF Review

Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie
Director: Debra Granik

A strong piece about deep connection, a symbiotism and subsequent disconnection, Granik's follow up to Winter's Bone is mesmerising in its minimalism.

McKenzie and Foster play father and daughter, Tom and Will. We first encounter them walking through the woods, and it soon becomes clear that this is where they live - to outsiders, it's less than idyllic, but for this pair, who seem unnaturally close, it's perfection.
Leave No Trace: NZIFF Review

Certainly for Tom, it appears to be all she's known - but all that changes when she's accidentally seen one day by a passer-by and authorities are alerted.

The pair are picked up by social services, and it's here problems develop for the father and daughter.

To say more about the adaptation of Peter Rock's 2009 book My Abandonment is to spoil what unfurls - and certainly, there's more of an air of mystery in this piece that eats away at you as the film goes on.

Hints are dropped both in moments of dialogue but also in actions - primarily via Foster's edginess, and the decision not to reveal everything immediately. It's this pervasive sense of mystery which soaks through Leave No Trace's DNA which makes such a rewarding watch.

What Granik achieves is a feeling of capturing the margins of society in hints rather than direct exposition and action. Coupled with two naturalistic turns from Foster and McKenzie, the film's power lies in its stillness and its sense of connection.

Initially, everything seems fine between the father and daughter - and the film's suspicions are raised by societal obsessions over motivations of why they live in the woods. It's notable that everything that goes wrong in this is due to external circumstances and intrusions - and certainly Foster's performance of internalised pain and struggle is deeply affecting.

Equally, McKenzie's turn as Tom is something else. She manages to affect great subtle change in Tom's arc, and her journey feels like the full gamut has been reached by the end. However, her confusion, occasional fiery burns, and her strength are key traits to Tom, never once overplayed and ultimately deeply empathetic.

While the film's suffused in mystery, the bond is resolutely human and co-dependant in many ways.

"How important are their judgments" is a line uttered early on, but it's one which forms the mantra of what Granik's trying to achieve here - everything is viewed from other's perspective, the inner sanctity of Tom and Will's bond subject to repeated scrutiny, and due to this, ultimately Tom's own scrutiny comes into play, setting in motion a chain of usually normal events that feel loaded with sadness.

Along with the reflection of an America split and marginalised (as briefly glimpsed throughout), Granik's pared back direction and wondrous cinematography helps Leave No Trace gain its growing atmospheric sense of dread.

But yet, Granik is also wise enough to present those from the outside world who interact with the duo as normal people, blessed with both empathy and a desire to help - making their discord and disconnect even more heart-wrenching to endure and watch.

It's compelling in extremis, and executed with such naturalistic edges, that it almost feels intrusive to watch. Very much the antithesis to Captain Fantastic, and although endowed with similar themes, Leave No Trace has a quiet power from beginning to end.

It's wondrous to behold, with much of the apparent coming-of-age tale leaving lots to unpack long after the lights have gone up and Foster and McKenzie's performances have been marvelled at.

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