Eight years ago, director Debra Granik blew audiences away (and gave us Jennifer Lawrence) with Winter’s Bone, the story of an Appalachian teenager driven to support her siblings in any way possible. Granik returns with Leave No Trace, a close cousin to her breakthrough feature that similarly focuses on a teenage girl growing up in a rural setting and forced to adapt to a new way of life. Newcomer Thomasin McKenzie carries this compelling father-daughter drama through familiar terrain, leaving more than a trace of an impression on the audience.

Tom (McKenzie) and her dad, Will (Ben Foster), have been living off the land in a national park for several years. When they’re forced to move out, the duo must contend with the new challenges of living in society. Where Tom finds herself able to balance new personal interests with her old life, Will struggles to find a way to get them back to where they once were.

There’s a tone in Leave No Trace that hearkens back to Winter’s Bone while not directly recreating it. We’re introduced to Tom and Will as they spend their days going into town, playing chess, and making food. Granik, through cinematographer Michael McDonough, is fascinated with the everyday lives of people ensconced in nature, and there’s something relaxing, if not a touch fantastical, about watching these two live in such peace in their surroundings. The script doesn’t let audiences in fully regarding our leads’ lives; we know Tom’s mother has died and there are allusions that Will is a war veteran possibly suffering from PTSD. But exposition is unnecessary in a film like this, even if it’s absence can make things feel formulaic. What’s important is how the characters feel in their world. Granik seems to be critiquing our own times, with our emphasis on social media and the internet, coupled with increasing fear and paranoia about the world. Will and Tom have created a life that we often wish we had the courage to embrace. In fact, one of the men who offers the two a house praises their way of life.

But like the opening of Pandora’s box, the shift comes once society invades Tom and Will’s utopia. When Tom is spied by a hiker, park rangers emerge. The father and daughter are separated and Tom gets her first taste at life in polite society. There’s an irony in her first interactions with other people as a social worker tells her “you can’t live on public land”—are so-called “public” lands in fact unlivable? The young girl understands how isolated she’s been, and though she loves her first home, calling it “a good place,” there’s a desire to chart out her future. When the family gets a chance to live in a real house, Tom is the one finding a means of bridging her two lives – taking an interest in FFA, aided by a boy she meets – while Will struggles with the thoughts in his head which remind him that he’s conforming to rules not his own.

Since the script doesn’t give audiences a way into the characters’ history, we are forced to rely on the lead performances. Foster is reliable as Will, a battle-scarred, broken man who isn’t necessarily a stretch for the actor, and perfectly captures Will’s love for his daughter. He wants to be better, if only for her, and what happens if he can’t do that? Foster is a solid anchor for his younger co-star. Much like Jennifer Lawrence was singled out in Winter’s Bone, audiences will be talking about McKenzie, whose expressive eyes and quiet sensitivity draw you in to Tom. Whether she’s navigating wooded terrain or mournfully saying goodbye to a toy horse, she takes things in and holds them close. As she and Will try to find a way to compromise, eventually stumbling into an RV community, Tom believes they’ve finally found a perfect way to bridge her father’s two ideals. McKenzie communicates without dialogue, and it’s an empathetic performance you’ll find intriguing.

Leave No Trace lacks the emotional gut punch of Winter’s Bone, but it replaces that with contemplative questions regarding sadness, mental illness and family. The script is just thin enough to keep the runtime buoyant and there will be questions left at the end, but McKenzie is a bright young star you’ll be excited to see at the beginning of her career.

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