Sunday, September 22, 2019

239. US independent filmmaker Debra Granik’s third feature film “Leave No Trace” (2018): An unusual tale of a father and his teenage daughter duo, living in the woods in self-imposed exile, far removed from socially acceptable elements of modern living

Director Debra Granik is an independent filmmaker in USA who works outside the Hollywood studio system.  Leave No Trace is her third feature film as a director without support from the influential studio producers and mainstream distributors.  Ms Granik often works with US scriptwriter Anne Rosellini. Their collaboration has resulted in two notable independent feature films: Ms Granik’s second feature film Winter’s Bone (2010) and Leave No Trace. 

The duo picked  up two novels on individuals living on the fringes of society (one on the family of a drug addict, another of a traumatized war veteran), and transformed those into  the scripts of unusually magnetic feature films with very striking performances from carefully chosen actresses, propelling them from near obscurity to world attention. This happened with all three feature films directed by Ms Granik: Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone (2004), Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell) and the trend follows with Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace.  Ms Granik won top honors as a director at the Sundance Film Festival for her first two feature films and several minor awards at Berlin, Venice, Stockholm and Hong Kong film festivals.

Will (Ben Foster) an Iraq war veteran who becomes a recluse, preferring a life,
with what is left oh his family,  in the woods

The film Leave No Trace is based on a novel My Abandonment written by Peter Rock. The book won an Alex Award, instituted by the American Library Association, for outstanding books “for adults that have special appeal to young adults aged 12 to 18.” The film pivots on a clean father-daughter relationship in the absence of the mother of the girl. As the film progresses, the viewer learns that the father Will (Ben Foster) is a war veteran who served in Iraq and that his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) has not known her mother for a long, long while. A newspaper clipping tells us that many of Will’s veteran compatriots committed suicide on their return. Evidently the unusual behaviour of Will to live with his daughter in the forest, devoid of social interaction, is part of a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) behaviour pattern.  As an army veteran, Will knows the basics of survival and camouflage in the forest. He teaches his daughter techniques of survival and hiding/camouflage and most importantly, good manners.  He even teaches her to play chess and use nonverbal communication.

Will's teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) etching a
remarkable performance
The daughter reads a clipping carried by her father,
revealing the effect of  PSTD

An arrest by the police and the resulting evaluation of the duo reveal several interesting facts: their relationship is not sexual, the father Will has taught his daughter Tom sufficiently that she is better than other school-going kids of her age and that Will was once a team player and is no longer one.  Attempts by social groups to re-integrate the duo into mainstream society have different effects on Will and Tom. While Will can communicate silently with horses, Tom communicates with rabbits and dogs.  The sight of a helicopter above a Christmas-tree farm triggers a PSTD urge in Will to return to the seclusion of the forest. 

The subtext of the film that honey bees don't sting bare hands if they recognize
the hand of the beekeeper

Ms Granik’s film presents a forest scenario without reptiles, insects or wild animals, which contrasts with reality.  While the film is beautifully made and provides a plethora of comments on society, evaluation of behaviour, interesting techniques to re-integrate people on the fringes of society into the mainstream, honeybees’ relationships with humans, the ending of the film is credible and beautifully executed, much like the Alex award for books –a film “for adults that have special appeal to young adults aged 12 to 18.” It is indeed a great film that shows the respectful and loving behaviour of a teen towards a parent while making a responsible, resolute decision that affects her future.

Will educates his daughter Tom, informally (even in chess), to be as or better
educated than a formally student of her age

The final song Moon Boat, with music by Dickon Hinchliffe and sung by Kendra Smith, raises the level of the film. The words of the song reprise the philosophy of the tale/film and are evidently written specifically for the film.
I wander, this world green and wild, And the things in my mind are like A red sun gone down. 
And I, I know you must go And I think I know why But I don't know why.
Still I am thinking we both share a moon and a star. May you be safe may we both find a place with a heart. 
Here, where treasures abound In the things I have found, a leaf, a song come from above.
In the wood, where secrets crawl The earth so small, a place, a home, A dream my own. 
There'll be a tree that joins you and me from afar. And I am certain we all share a moon and a star.
Ms Granik’s films prove that independent films in the US can provide richer fare with lower budgets than Hollywood films. Of course, the lovely works of director John Cassavettes and Jim Jarmusch are ”indies” that rarely made the Oscar nominations but these are film superior or equal in quality to those that do eventually win Oscar nominations. Ms Granik and Ms Rosellini have proved their capability to transform novels into wonderful scripts that ultimately make their films stand out from the rest. Finally, Ms Granik has proven that she can extract remarkable performances from her actors, different lead actresses for each film, and choose the right team to embellish the soundtracks of her films.

The carefully chosen visual frame: two plant stalks in the forest,
one withering and old,
another green and in good health, encapsulating the film

Any future works from team Granik-Rosellini-Hinchliffe-Smith would undoubtedly be worth waiting for. This team has an unusual winner with  a carefully crafted signature closing ballad that has proved to be  be more powerful that than all the elements of cinema that preceded it. Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969) was one film that came close to the achievement of this film decades ago.

P.S. Leave No Trace has already won 17 awards. Recommended reading--an interview of Ms Kristy Strouse with Ms Debra Granik, which includes her thoughts on Ms Kendra Smith, singer of the closing song discussed above, published in Film Inquiry

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