In the first mysterious scenes of “Leave No Trace,” a father and daughter make their way through the lush greenery of a rainforest. He’s intense, almost haunted. She’s in her early teens, and she seems serene. What are they doing? Living there, it turns out—off the grid and in hiding, as they have been for years. These early passages of the film are as entrapping as the spider webs the camera notices in passing. They catch you up in a suspenseful wilderness tale that opens out to an urgent drama of conflict, beauty and growth.
The director, Debra Granik, made a stunning feature eight years ago: “Winter’s Bone,” which launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence. Here’s another stunner, and another revelation in the calmly radiant person of Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. She plays the daughter, Tom, who loves her troubled dad, Will, unconditionally. (He’s played superbly by Ben Foster.)
I’ll never forget watching Lawrence’s early scenes as Ree, the 17- year-old heroine of “Winter’s Bone,” and assuming she was some phenomenally gifted amateur the filmmakers had found in the Ozarks, where the story was set. The director’s new film hasn’t arrived unnoticed, so we may already know that McKenzie is not an amateur from Oregon, where most of the action takes place, but an exceptional young professional from New Zealand, though you’d never know that from her flawless American accent. Still, it’s a similar case of watching a performance so pure and unmannered that it transcends performing. Tom’s devotion to her father is fierce—the essence of the film is the bond between them—but their idyllic forest life can’t last forever, and McKenzie’s at her most eloquent when Tom discovers a larger world she never wanted to live in.
“Leave No Trace” was photographed with lovely simplicity by Michael McDonough, who also shot “Winter’s Bone.” In other hands the film might have been a smug fable of virtuous hippies—not just tree-huggers but tree-dwellers—versus straight, rigid society. In Ms. Granik’s telling, love is the binding force, but kindness and generosity keep popping up on both sides of the cultural divide. People may be suspicious at first, as well they might be, about a young girl in the company of a bearded man with hooded eyes, a military cap and a backpack. Yet they want to be helpful, and they are, once they’ve satisfied themselves that nothing unsavory is going on.
“Leave No Trace” was made by an artist who combines plainspoken poetry with documentary detail. It’s a gorgeous film, a triumph on top of an earlier one and, not incidentally, a small miracle of concision at a time when audiences are more and more interested in stories spun out at great length in episodes and seasons. Here, in less than two hours, lives are discovered, set in passionate motion and transformed.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.