Bees creep peaceably over the hands of Thomasin McKenzie, the teenage actress cast as the protagonist of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. It’s not an editing trick; you see McKenzie’s calm, heart-shaped face and unprotected fingers within a single shot, as the bees settle onto her palms and explore. Those same hands also spend a few minutes of screen time cradling a plump bunny and stroking its ears. Rabbits can be nervous creatures, apt to deliver efficient kicks, but this one relaxes into warm lumpishness with McKenzie, despite having Chainsaw as its name.
Set in the verdant world of the American Northwest, Leave No Trace begins with close-up views of fecund branches, glistening spiderwebs, and hollows of knee-high ferns, and ends with a panorama, seen from above, of a man disappearing into a mountain thicket. This rustling landscape might not quite pass for a new Eden—one of America’s long-favored sites of imagination—but it’s nevertheless suffused with a vibrant yet soothing light (thanks to Michael McDonough’s cinematography) and seems ready to absorb and shelter, rather than threaten. This is where McKenzie’s character, Tom, and her father, Will (Ben Foster), are first seen making their home, without running water, electricity, or fixed walls, in a nature that knows no violence.
A Christmas-tree farm, on the other hand, turns out to be a roaring nightmare of mutilated spruces, crashing loads, and helicopters buzzing down as if for an assault. That’s how it seems to Will, anyway, when the State of Oregon decides to civilize him, like some late-30s Huck Finn with PTSD. Having captured him and his daughter in Portland’s vast Forest Park, where the two have been living off the land (or is it hiding out?) for an unspecified period of time, the authorities decree that if this family is to remain together, the child must go to school, the parent must earn wages, and both must live in the house that Human Services assigns them, on the farm that jangles Will’s nerves and makes him clutch his head. The confinement, the noise, the officiousness masquerading as kindness: They’re all intolerable to him, with the helicopters as a special torment, uncannily echoing the choppers that shake him out of sleep at night. What’s worst, though, are the hints—given with the tenderness and respect that are the norm between this father and his rapidly maturing daughter—that Tom might like it here.
Co-written with Anne Rosellini, and based on a novel by Peter Rock, Leave No Trace is the third film that Granik has made about a woman in extremity—though not the mortal peril that hovered over Vera Farmiga as a recovering addict in Down to the Bone (2004), or Jennifer Lawrence as an unwilling intruder into criminal secrets in Winter’s Bone (2010). In keeping with its vision of an idyllic almost-Eden, Leave No Trace generates suspense about Tom’s fortunes and signals her moments of defiance almost imperceptibly, with a few words left unspoken or a muttered rejoinder phrased so that her father can take it as acquiescence if he chooses to. Leave No Trace is a quiet movie—or, rather, a muffled one. Tom’s restiveness is always just below the surface, even when she’s offering her habitual “Thank you” to her father (which happens suspiciously often, with perhaps too much meekness) or cheerily complaining that she’s hungry (and so reminding him of her growth). In response, her loving father never raises his voice and never lifts a hand in anger, no matter the terrors that he’s tamping down.