The latest from "Winter's Bone" director Debra Granik is the quietly powerful "Leave No Trace," which continues the filmmaker's gravitation toward stories of people on the margins. The film tells the story of Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), a father and daughter living off the grid, squatting on public park land in Portland, Oregon.
They've clearly moved around throughout Tom's childhood, but seem to have been settled in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for some time; long enough to have developed a familiar routine and a comfortable existence for themselves. They're happy on their own, venturing into civilization only to buy some necessary supplies from the supermarket or to the VA for Will's medication, which he immediately then sells off to other vets.
But that all changes when a jogger spots Tom and alerts the authorities, who promptly arrive to remove father and daughter from the land. The pair are turned over to social services, who begin efforts to reintegrate them into society, securing them a place to live and a job for Will working at a Christmas tree farm. Tom is adaptable, finding that she quite likes having other people around, but the change is much harder on her father.
Suffering from severe PTSD, Will wants nothing more than to close himself off from the world, but must grapple with the realization that his chosen life might not be what's best for his daughter. He wants to protect her, even as Tom demonstrates an increasing need for connection and a community beyond what he can provide.
Told with real compassion, "Leave No Trace" is a story without any real villains; most people Tom and Will encounter want to help, including those from the social services agency. At its heart, the film is really a coming-of-age story, about a child growing beyond what they've been taught by the adults in their life; when we learn that the life that our parents have made for us is not necessarily the one we want for ourselves.
With "Winter's Bone," Granik kick-started Jennifer Lawrence's career, and I wouldn't be surprised if "Leave No Trace" does the same for Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. She gives a remarkable, natural performance, one that allows us to see Tom grow and mature without us realizing it's happening. Granik never over-explains anything, putting trust in her audience to pay attention to the details. And it's those sharply observed details that make "Leave No Trace" so deeply emotional, and one of the best films of the year.