As you watch Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) slink with animal stealth through the dripping, emerald lushness of a Pacific Northwest forest, you can’t help wondering if they’re on the run. In a way, they are — but they’re not being hunted by predators or police. They’re being hunted, at least in Will’s mind, by the entirety of the workaday world beyond the edges of those woods. Whenever someone as innocuous as a hiker comes close, Will has drilled Tom to hide immediately, without stirring so much as one of the fern fronds that surround them.
They’re living off the grid, but why? There aren’t zombies out there, or a dystopian, post-apocalyptic army. The time is now. Of the little we come to know about these two, we glean that Tom’s mother is out of the picture, presumably dead, and that Will is a military veteran (he wakes up gasping from dreams filled with the chop of copter blades). His interaction with the world consists of furtively visiting Portland to purchase supplies, check in at the VA facility and resell his prescription drugs to guys at a homeless encampment, also in the woods.
Things change when one of those woodland hikers spots Tom and alerts authorities that there’s a young teen girl who seems to be on her own in the wilderness. Will and Tom are taken into Portland, where the girl is gently questioned by a social worker named Jean (a sympathetic Dana Millican), who asks about the single-tent proximity of father and daughter. (“Has anybody ever touched your body without permission?”)
What could be a bureaucratic, overplayed nightmare in another movie is handled gently here. Even the functionary who administers a series of psychological questions to Will (via a computer program with an impersonal, Siri-Alexa voice) clearly wants Will to score well on the test.
Leave No Trace wisely makes us weigh what we believe is the right future path for Will and Tom. Who is in the right: a father who keeps his child sheltered, clothed, fed and educated (if in nontraditional ways), or a society that thinks its established standards of childcare and housing are superior to the desires of a parent?
There’s an austerity — a sort of emotional and factual withholding — in director Debra Granik’s approach that can either elate you or tick you off. She’s best known for Winter’s Bone. But that earlier movie has a dramatic imperative: Jennifer Lawrence, as an Ozark teenager, has to find her missing dad or the family will lose their house, since he’s put it up for collateral as part of a jail bond. Leave No Trace is much less plot-driven.
In its minimalist approach, at least, it avoids the frequent film missteps of forced dialogue or dime story psychologizing. The downside is that Will sometimes feels more of an emblem, a conceptualization, than a full-fledged character. Will’s inability to live for long in “civilization” can be frustrating. (Foster’s trademark, inward wariness is almost too perfect a match for this character.)
Tom is more engaging if only because she is literally engaging — with a world she has previously not known, which includes kids her own age, and alien organizations like the 4-H Club. McKenzie is playing a character a few years younger than her actual age, but with her dewy features and tiny, whispery voice, she’s perfectly believable.
For me, what distinguishes Leave No Trace more than the central father-daughter tale is the peripheral, brief portraits it gives us of others leading lives off the beaten path: a long-haul truck driver who gives Will and Tom a lift (only after quizzing Tom to make sure her dad is really her dad); those homeless guys in the woods; a community of aging hippies living in amiable isolation with their beehives and guitars. (The indelible Dale Dickey, from Winter’s Bone and Hell or High Water turns up as a no-nonsense den mother of these folks.)
I wasn’t as wildly crazy for Leave No Trace as many other critics are. But I recommend it as much for what it doesn’t do as for what it does. It’s a gentle, troubling drama that contributes to the sort of questions many of us have these days: Who are we now? Who are we really?
The question of identity is also at the heart of The Cakemaker. Now receiving a commercial screening and featured earlier this year as part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Israeli-German drama is a delicate character study about grief and recovery.
Following the death of her husband, young mother Anat (Sarah Adler) struggles to keep her kosher restaurant open. She gets unexpected help when a young man from Berlin, Tomas (Tim Kalkhof), a new arrival in Jerusalem, proves to be a fantastic baker and helps boost her business.
What Anat doesn’t know is that Tomas was the lover her traveling husband always stayed with when business took him to Germany – and for whom he was planning to leave the marriage. What sounds like a Hitchcock-toned stalker-thriller turns out instead to be a lovely examination of how two grieving people manage to help each other, even unknowingly, to move forward with their lives.
Leave No Trace. With Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Directed by Debra Granik. Rated PG. 109 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinemas, Springs Cinema and Taphouse, AMC Colonial 18, Merchants Walk Stadium 14.
The Cakemaker. With Sarah Adler and Tim Kalkhof. Written and directed by Ofir Raul Graizer. Unrated. 104 minutes. In Hebrew, German and English with subtitles. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.