'Leave No Trace': a feminine meditation on living, loving and letting go

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t watched the superlative “Leave No Trace” (2018) yet, do; this is not a review, but it does contain spoilers.

imdb? 7.2/10. Metacritic? 88. Tomatometer? 100%. Roger Ebert? 4/4. As if that wasn’t enough, Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) and Mark Kermode (Observer) both gave LNT a 5/5.

Some movies bravely portray the female experience. Few as brilliantly as Debra Granik has. She’s portrayed it all right, without undermining the male experience. Not, at any rate, in competition with it. Her movie is slow; more a stroll on a sidewalk than a jog in a park. Had a bunch of men been behind it, they may have ruined it with a sprint now and then. Not the seven women who were: screenplay writer-director Debra Granik, producers Anne Harrison, Linda Reisman, Anne Rosellini, editor Jane Rizzo, lead actress Thomasin McKenzie and supporting actress Dale Dickey. They weren’t uneasy with ‘slow’. And because of that leisurely pace, you see much more. You’re more alive to the sights, the sounds. You’ve got time to pause, think, feel, soak in. And space to reflect on what’s happening - and what isn’t. 

It’s worth it. 

Some films scream their feminism. LNT doesn’t scream. It whispers. Yet it’s gripping enough to get you thinking and feeling differently about women, moving enough to get you seeing women differently. It’s about a girl becoming a woman, without the misandry in much filmmaking that passes off as feminist. It asserts the feminine, gently - without belittling the masculine.

Of the central characters, war veteran father Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (McKenzie), it’s the girl who is wiser, more mature. How?

She doesn’t insist on her way as the only way - it’s merely hers. 

She doesn’t demand understanding at any cost.

Importantly, she doesn’t confuse empathy with endorsement. She doesn’t confuse her embrace of his fatherhood with embrace of his deviance. His PTSD - as pitiable as it seems - does lead him to deviance, from social conformity. 

Not all men are typically masculine, not all women are typically feminine. Neither is - nor need be - mutually exclusive. Most men and women bear within them both, to varying degrees. In harmony with their context? They can be beautiful. In conflict or in competition? Destructive. Granik recognises these as stereotypes and therefore flawed sketches of men and women. So, her movie is a meditation, a laying down of an aspiration - for both. No movie can capture the myriad styles of men and women who care. But Granik offers hints. In the transition from one forest to another, from real jungle to urban jungle both father and daughter struggle. Granik’s nod is to the feminine. How?

He ends up succumbing to ensuing emotional conflict. She adapts.

Both survive. She gives herself the better chance to thrive

Both live. She gives herself the better chance of really living

Both sacrifice. She sacrifices more willingly, even if their parting hurts her as much as it does him.  

Both feel pain. He ends up bearing the deeper scar.

Scores of filmmakers probably offer more excitable sound, soundtrack, light, lighting, camera frames, angles. Granik’s touch lies not so much in her cinematic craft but in her humane core, drawing us in by the sheer power of her storytelling, her conviction in our power as humans to change, and her compassion toward those of us who can’t.

Tom’s “the same thing that’s wrong with you, isn’t wrong with me” is devastating. But also liberating, in cutting Will’s delusional hold over her. 

LNT ends with hope. Of eventual reconciliation, an eventual reunion of sorts, even if imperfect. Tom hangs a Bear Bag in the woods: even if it doesn’t help him, someday it may help a man like him. Even in her letting go, she’s embracing a circle wider than herself and her father. She’s hoping that her more accommodative approach won’t remain as unacceptable to him as it seems now.

The movie has no visible enemy. But it isn’t a Man vs. Nature drama either. The forest isn’t a villain. Nor is social conformity. Instead, Granik dwells on internal conflicts and contradictions that decide not whether we live or die or let go, but how well (or poorly) we live and die and let go. A daughter’s need to belong (to her father) alongside her need to become her own person, explore wider relationships, learn from her mistakes, take her risks. 

Granik’s minimalist style doesn’t feel obliged to ramp up drama or inject malice in the social workers. Or supply fear, via threats of physical harm. In fact, as she’s said in interviews, she looks for goodness, hunts for it and responds to it. That kindly way of seeing the world seeps into her filmmaking, giving it a sensitivity, a slowness, a quietude that breathes insight. 

There’s a scene where Will, just “rescued” from the park, is sitting at a computer. A social worker is trying to “rehabilitate” him by administering an aptitude test of his abilities as single parent. 

Suddenly, the test question pops up: “Are you proud of your daughter?” 

Will freezes.

A real-life social worker happened to be on the movie set that day, felt awkward about letting that moment pass, and told Granik: Why doesn’t the social worker say something? Anything! To make Will feel good? Respond to what is, surely, a basic goodness in the father? 

Granik promptly worked that empathy into the scene. She’s said that at his best Will wouldn’t have acted as he did. But he feels pursued and ends up endangering them. In his fixation with self-reliance, he forgets that we’re ultimately fragile, more dependent than independent. That insight doesn’t come from a “me, my, mine” way of seeing the world. 

Talk about leaving no trace, Debra Granik is leaving an indelible stamp on cinema!

The boy Tom befriends appears secure in his masculinity. Not possessive. Or domineering. And doesn’t feel emasculated because of his urge to care for rabbits. In Will we only glimpse that caring instinct, in his urge to care for horses, atop his paternal care for Tom, even if the latter is more than a little exclusionist.

In caring for an injured Will, Tom adopts a mothering role. She reaches out to the Bohemian community. To the “rabbit” boy and his circle. To her father too, sharing her worries, her hopes, wishing that he’ll find reassurance too, in reaching out - not necessarily (or only) to her. 

What’s with all the reaching out? When you’re reaching out, it isn’t impossible to be selfish. It’s just harder.  

Women writers or directors won’t - and many don’t - get it right because they’re women any more than men do because they’re men. But they’re missing out – to put it mildly – if they aren’t fighting for a chance to learn at Granik’s feet. Her filmmaking embodies the best of feminism, the finest of the feminine. We need more of her kind in mainstream Hollywood.

In LNT the state is sensitive to the poor-homeless, eschews excessive force, is patient, even decent: sure, protect the daughter, not necessarily at the expense of the father. But to see this film merely through the prism of issues - homelessness, PTSD, free living vs. urban domestication, losing ourselves in tech vs. interpersonal connectedness, socially acceptable vs. unconventional parenting - is to miss the point. 

Inadvertently, LNT may be teaching us more. It may be teaching us to rage. To rage against circumstance, but to be forgiving of those who succumb. To rage against our inner demons. For if we’re always seeking enemies without, we will sooner or later find them. 

Tom and Will love each other. Deeply. Their thoughts, actions, words and silences, at times betray an intimacy, at other times a distancing. 

He’s enslaved by his condition, even when he breaks free

She’s liberated because she’s at home, anywhere. 

He chooses to leave, out of compulsion. She chooses to stay, in freedom

Here’s the thing. 

Choice - in and of itself - is not freedom. Choice is also what choice does. 

Choice can be slavery, if it continues to wound, cripple and kill rather than to liberate and heal. 

If you can’t go beyond yourself, a bricked-in apartment is no more enslaving than wide-open countryside. If you can’t live for something, someone other than yourself, then running apace in the hills, or speeding on the freeway with your car-top down, radio turned up and wind in your hair, can be as futile as staying put.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture. Twitter: @RudolphFernandz https://www.rudolphfernandez.com/


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