Cannes Film Fest 2018: Granik’s Leave No Trace, Starring Ben Foster

Truly independent, Debra Granik has become a quintessential writer and director of personal films that are grounded in a cultural context, region, and social class—rural poor white class– seldom seen in American films.

Modest and humble to a fault, Granik has made several strong films about women: Down to the Bone starring the charmingly unassuming Vera Farmiga, Winter’s Bone, an Oscar-nominated feature that put Jennifer Lawrence on the map as a major talent.

And now comes another indie gem, Leave No Trace,  a sharply observed, compassionate but unsentimental look at the complex and multi-nuanced relationship between a father and his daughter.

World premiering to great critical acclaim at the 2018 Sundance Film Fest, Leave No Trace is one of the few American films in the Directors Fortnight sidebar of the 2018 Cannes Film Fest.

Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, the tale revolves around a fiercely close father, a PTSD-afflicted veteran and widower named Will (a terrific Ben Foster), who insists on living apart from the world, and his teenager daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), eager to join in, to belong to a family and perhaps even a community.

On one level, the film is an honorable addition to the coming-of-age genre, albeit one in which the adolescent is far from being feisty or rebellious. On another, Leave No Trace is an intimate family drama, in which the exteriors are just as important as the interiors, dealing with the significant issue of Civilization and Its Discontents, or society versus the wilderness.

Will and Tom live—or rather survive the elements–in the wilderness, a camp in a public park in the mountainous area outside Portland, Oregon. They eat mushrooms, boil their eggs, get wood for fire, use rain water to drink.

The screenplay, adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini, doesn’t offer detailed background of how or why Will and Tom live there.  As always, there are push and pull forces. Will’s removal of himself and his daughter from civilization is a statement against consumer-capitalist society, favoring a quiet, understated life.

Ganik and cinematographer Michael McDonough capture the idiosyncratic beauty–simple majesty—of the geography, sort of a temporary paradise, which the characters like, refusing to perceive themselves as “homeless.”

Will is not a tyrant or patriarch, but rather a sensitive and devoted father, albeit one with stubbornly firm sense of values.  This becomes all the more evident when the police remove the coule from their camp and place them–in separate levels–at a social-service agency.

Later on, at their new locale, Tom tries to readjust, learning to bike, befriending a local boy, attending Sunday church service. In contrast, it’s harder for Will, whose new job is cutting down trees on the farm, which are then sold.

Leave No Trace is less about where the duo ends up than how they get there without paying too high a price, personally and jointly.  At what point, clinging too much to past way of life and old values, loses its effectiveness and becomes detrimental to individual growth, emotional maturity, and genuine independence.