It would be silly not to give a full, 4-popcorn rating to "Leave No Trace," Debra Granik's trenchant, contemporary drama about a PTSD sufferer who lives off the grid in the Portland, Ore., woods with his teenage daughter. However, when movies are this good, there is a tendency on the critic's part to judge them against other superb examples of the filmic art, and to cautiously rein-in the ebullience that can't help accompany the welcome rush of provocative truths. The personal tale is devastating, the larger implications, haunting.
So, when quibbling between a 3 or 3 1/2 and a 4, I invoke the Goldberger Rule of Cinematic Significance to tip the balance: Is the motion picture in question socially or politically important? The answer is an unequivocal yes as the plight of Ben Foster's war-damaged Will is part and parcel of humanity's inability thus far, in the words of Rodney King, to "just get along." Our mentally tortured casualty is the modern-day equivalent of a Roman legionnaire, dispatched from his homeland to assert strength and authority throughout the realm.
You see, those powers that be can't say it outright. But things really haven't changed much since those legionnaires and centurions patrolled the globe in the name of Caesar. While the United States currently struggles to keep upright its democratic experiment, since WWI it has been no less an empire than those various dominions following the fall of Rome who have taken turns at wielding their supremacy. When cancer is cured, it'll happen in America. Empires do wonderful things and horrible things, and often leave a terrible human cost in their wake.
We're certain this isn't lost on Will, an astute, rather intelligent man who has homeschooled his survivalist-savvy daughter, Tom, exquisitely exacted by Thomasin McKenzie. Plagued by the clinical fallout of his service, he knows his options and, selling meds prescribed by the VA doctors to buy what supplies and victuals he can't obtain from nature, he has chosen a forest hermitage as his only acceptable lifestyle. But unlike an idealized, Robinson Crusoe-type hiatus from society, his self-imposed exile with Tom is an endless military maneuver.
It is an abstract combination of retreat, reconnaissance and Greenpeace initiative, the so-called normal society seen as a controlling force hell-bent on quashing personal freedom and systematically destroying the Earth in the name of financial profit. Well, duh! Still, as we more tightly wrapped citizens subscribe to my dear alma mater's credo, "Est Modus in Rebus" (there is a mean to all things), we are aghast at the danger of extremist choices — especially as they may impact Tom. She is a good soldier, fully dedicated to dad, but gosh.
While the preciously touching daddy-daughter relationship is fraught with Will's injury-compromised judgement, we're nonetheless convinced it is the veteran's heartfelt belief that his way is the best way to protect Tom from The Man. Foster and McKenzie, issuing award-worthy performances, beautifully impress how the bond between parent and child is an integral part of the individual freedoms any enlightened civilization must diligently guarantee to protect. It's about the sanctity of the family, the building block of society.
But all this philosophical and emotional justification is just that to the authorities. The powers that be can't have anyone camped permanently in the public parks, let alone a minor who, by all rights ethical and legal, should be living in safe surroundings and afforded the opportunity of a public education. So the hunt is on, searingly affecting in its caustic realism, the state barging its way into, and laying down the rules for lives with little consideration for individual hopes, dreams and aspirations. Such is the tyranny of good intentions.
While the inevitable pursuit, which includes yelping dogs usually redolent of manhunts inspired by far more egregious infractions, is tension-filled, it is just the frame upon which writer-director Granik and co-scribe Anne Rosellini build their worldview. Opinion and metaphors flourish as we are guided through a somber funhouse of antiseptic social service agencies, some time on the road, Woody Guthrie style, and a stay at a self-styled encampment of rugged individualists who have chosen a life deep in the holler. It's good, honest sociology.
Scratch the tale's surface and you come face to face with the subtext, a sociopolitical rumination about Americans heretofore classified as forgotten, but now increasingly cited as that cultural phenomenon that has, for the time being, turned our world topsy-turvy. Such is oft the subject matter of author Peter Rock's works, whose book, "My Abandonment," serves as the basis of our movie. We are saddened, enlightened and stirred. There is truth in subjectivity if intelligently interpreted, and it'd be a tragedy if we left no trace of our efforts to put things right.
"Leave No Trace," rated PG, is a Bleecker Street Media release directed by Debra Granik and stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. Running time: 109 minutes
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