It doesn’t need to be this hard.
In present day, a father and his teenage daughter are deep in the woods in the Pacific Northwest, facing life-threatening conditions ranging from hypothermia to severe dehydration to starvation.
They gratefully and desperately lap at precious drops of rainwater they’ve caught in oversized leaves. They build a makeshift bunker that barely succeeds in keeping them from freezing to death.
That’s not hyperbole. There’s a chance they’ll be dead before daybreak.
And it doesn’t need to be this hard. Just a few days earlier, the father and his daughter were living in a modest but comfortable home. The father had steady work, and the daughter was adapting to a new environment — doing well at school and making friends.
Dad left by choice, and though his daughter would have preferred to stay, she wouldn’t dream of parting ways with her father, her teacher, her protector. Not to mention that a part of this girl knows her father needs her at least as much as she needs him.
The problem for the dad: living in a box and following someone else’s rules is akin to indentured servitude. He is an emotionally damaged, deeply anti-social war veteran who has been unable to exist anywhere but deep in the woods and the parks for who knows how many years.
For this man, living in a house and sleeping in a bed and cooking dinner in a kitchen is as excruciating as it would be for you and I to set up long-term camp in a tent in the mud, forage for food every day and do everything possible to minimize contact with the outside and so-called civilized world.
This is the premise of writer-director Debra Granik’s harsh and moving and mournfully beautiful “Leave No Trace,” a film that deserves a place of honor among movie lovers, a film that deserves to be seen, even if it’s in Theater 22, down the hallway from all the big-budget summer blockbusters.
In an Oscar-worthy performance, the great Ben Foster (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Lone Survivor,” “Hell or High Water”) plays Will, a widower and war veteran with PTSD who has been living on the fringes of society (and illegally) with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) on an expansive nature preserve outside Portland, Oregon.
Their makeshift “home” is actually pretty cool — if you’re looking at it as the kind of shelter contestants would build on a reality-TV show. It’s airtight and warm. There are books to read. A chessboard gets a steady workout. Every day is an adventure.
But for Will and Tom (and the other outcasts who have set up camp in the area), there’s always the danger of getting found out — and that’s exactly what happens one day, when park rangers discover their dwelling and bring them in to sort out the situation.
As one might expect, the authorities and the Social Services people separate Will and Tom, and ask legitimate questions about the nature of this highly unorthodox situation. Tom is appalled at even the suggestion Will has abused or mistreated her. (He hasn’t.)
To the credit of the screenplay (Granik co-wrote the script with Anne Roselinni, drawing from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment”), “Leave No Trace” doesn’t take the easy path and turn the cops and the social workers into villains. In fact, they become genuinely invested in helping out Will and Tom, going so far as to find them a home and a future that’s about as close to Will’s need for isolation and open spaces without breaking any laws or societal conventions.
A kindly and grizzled and successful Christmas tree farmer puts them up in a small house on his property. As long as Will works hard every day, and Tom attends school, and Will and Tom go to church on Sundays, they’re welcome to stay there for as long as they’d like.
Tom makes friends and develops a crush on a boy. Will, on the other hand, is crawling out of his skin — and early one morning, he tells Tom to gather a few necessities as quickly as possible, because it’s time to hit the road and once again disappear from the world.
This is when “Leave No Trace” becomes a beautiful and heartbreaking and authentic slice of a little-seen segment of American life. Will and Tom nearly kill themselves trying to make a go of it in increasingly brutal conditions, but eventually they’re rescued (in more ways than one) by some world-weary but wonderful people who live in trailers and shacks far off the grid, but find quiet contentment in the meals they share, the nighttime music they play, the sense of community they treasure.
In the kind of role that can sink or swim a film this intense, a film that greatly depends on a young actor holding her own in scene after scene with an immensely talented veteran, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie delivers a nomination-worthy performance as young Tom, who is torn between her fierce love and loyalty for her father, and her growing need to be a part of a larger community. She is a natural.
Somehow it’s been eight years since Granik’s last feature film: the equally powerful and memorable “Winter’s Bone,” which helped catapult Jennifer Lawrence to superstardom (and to my mind is STILL the best vehicle for Lawrence’s talents).
“Leave No Trace” is further evidence Granik is one of the most talented directors around — and Ben Foster ranks among the finest and most intense actors working today.
This is a brilliant and timely and telling statement about the difference between the haves and the have-nots and have-just-enough-to-scrape-by in American society, and it tells its story without cynicism or pessimism or judgment. It’s a fictional work, but it has the pure storytelling quality of great journalism.
Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Debra Granik and written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, adapted from Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment.” Rated PG (for thematic material throughout). Running time: 109 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East and Landmark Century Centre.