Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 02, 2018 9:28 am 
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Flight into nature

Eight years since her memorable previous feature, Winter's Bone, Debra Granik is still focused on marginal people living in the woods and there are overlaps, like Wittgenstein's "family resemblances," between all three of her features, including her "good but grim," as I put it, debut film Down to the Bone. In between, in 2014, she made a documentary, Stray Dog, about "Ron 'Stray Dog' Hall: biker, Vietnam Vet, and lover of small dogs." He enters here, lending a dog to Will (Ben Foster), the troubled but determined father of Tom (17-year-old New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie) when the pair are given refuge by the fringe community to which "Stray Dog" belongs. When you look into it, Granik's films are more than usually hand-crafted and rooted in explorations of actual people and actual environments, marginal, struggling, and brave.

When we meet 13-year-old Tom, she is living off the grid in Portland’s Forest Park nature reserve with her father in a hidden camp that has all kinds of things, hideaways and supplies, a propane burner, for instance, though he prefers to use wood fires. They "feather" wood strips to get their fires going. "This wood is really good for feathering," says Tom in one typical scene of the pair working side-by-side. This movie is thick with the materiality of lives put together by hand against tough odds.

Life in a lovely nature this is, the temperate forests of America's Pacific Northwest, wonderlands of leaves, branches and greens through which light plays and soft rainfall tumbles down. But it's a fraught world for father and daughter, its perfection always wrapped in tension. They can go to Portland occasionally for groceries and hospital. He can sell his vet's pain meds to a tent encampment drug dealer for a supply of cash. But hiding is the constant priority. They have regular drills where they seek to flee their camp in a hurry leaving, as the title says, no trace. It is illegal to live on public land, and so they are, and have been, breaking the law. They start at any unnatural sound. This becomes the story of what happens when they are found and hunted down.

Tom is spotted by a jogger, which she suspects, but doesn't tell her dad about because she wants to stay at this nice camp. They are scented by a dog, hunted by rangers and cops, and caught, tied, and led away. Their handlers are gentle and well intentioned, it would seem. After all, Will and Tom are a high order of homeless dweller. The first question for Tom is, has there been anything improper between her and her father. They have been sleeping side by side. There is not, though a tender intimacy joins them tight. Tom insists her father has provided her with a good home: as in other examples of families in hiding (such as the radicals-in-flight in Running on Empty, one of River Phoenix's most iconic roles, and the enthralling utopian family in Matt Ross' 2016 Captain Fantastic), the parent is supreme here, and his interpretation of the world is accepted. Except that among the six siblings in Captain Fantastic, there is the odd dissenter, and River Phoenix must break away to explore his exceptional talent in music.

But once they are brought into captivity and studied by social workers, separately, there are constant signals, small and large of society's menace, helicopters, traffic, buzz saws, impertinent questions, and the gentlest hints that Tom can adjust to this other world but Will, never.

They're tested and Tom proves academically superior for her age, but there's the old criticism of home schooling: she hasn't gotten the socializing that comes with classrooms and student bodies. Will balks at the grim questions he's given about his feelings about life. Through his many silences we see that he's an army vet traumatized by war and disillusioned with modern society. When they're settled on the edge of a Christmas tree farm that also has horses and miraculously given a house, his first act is to disconnect the television set and put it in a closet.

Gradually, as the bond that has been so strong is severely tested, difference develops to divide this tight father-daughter unit that's simply expressed by Tom as "What's wrong with you isn't wrong with me." Yet the woods-dwelling concealed life is all she has known and her loyalty to her father remains strong, so for the split to grow evident, then inevitable, is a gradual process that is the wonder of this film and the accomplishment of this original and accomplished filmmaker. This film was inspired by the discovery, in 2004, that a man named Frank and his 12-year-old daughter Ruth had been camping for years in a remote area of Portland’s Forest Park. The screenplay penned by Granik with Anne Rosellini follows the outlines of Peter Rock’s 2010 novel My Abandonment , a story like Frank and Ruth's with more details.

Adding details, and depth of location and casting are, in fact, the particular glory of Granik's working method and style. Once again Granik has made a strong, individual, and decidedly un-fun movie. One longs for the buoyancy of the off-the-grid siblings and the ebullient machismo of Viggo Mortensen as their defiantly anti-society dad in Captain Fantastic. But this isn't about utopianism. It's about how trauma can compel war-hardened men to use their guerrilla skills to hide from the growing noise and encroachments of modern society. And the grim, intense Ben Foster is ideally cast for that.

Leave No Trace, 109 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, showing in just over two dozen other festivals, mostly US, but also including Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, and festivals in Seoul, Sydney, Munich, Karlovy, New Zealand and Melbourne. US limited release began 29 Jun. 2018. Screened for this review at Landmark Embarcadero Cinemas, San Francisco. Metascore 89%.

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