Teenager Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her war veteran father, Will (Ben Foster), live off the grid in a public park near Portland, Oregon. This small survivalist family subside on foraged mushrooms and the money Will makes from selling his PTSD medication to other tent dwellers.
They’re technically homeless, but only so they can stay away from “them”. When social services intervene, father and daughter are transferred to a northwest logging community where Will finds work at a Christmas tree farm and Tom makes friends with a local rabbit-fancier.
Alas, settled life is anything but for Will, equally uncomfortable being psychologically evaluated, visiting church, or sleeping in a bed. Tom, conversely, while touchingly determined to please her father, enjoys the company of other people, rabbits and even bees.
Debra Granik's atmospheric second feature, Winter's Bone, was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a nod in the best actress category for newcomer Jennifer Lawrence. The director's long-awaited follow-up film introduces the similarly gifted New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie.
As with Matt Ross's recent Captain Fantastic, the drama pitches sheltering parental concern against the benefits of community, but with rather less blustering glamour than that Viggo Mortensen film.
Granik has a keen eye for blue-collar Americana. The screenplay – co-written with Anne Rosellini and adapted from Peter Rock's novel, My Abandonment – was carefully, patiently investigated and developed over years.
There's no hint of poverty tourism in Leave No Trace, nor are the characters – many essayed by non-professional actors – overly romanticised. Whether the film is visiting a tent city or a trailer park, the people are unfailingly kind without being movie-brand noble.
Their unsentimental, straightforward inner goodness is mirrored by Michael McDonough’s beautiful cinematography, which carefully pitches the loveliness of a dappled cobweb in a forest against uncomfortable, off-centre shots of interiors.
There are parallels in Granik's chronicling of a lesser-seen, lesser-moneyed America and the musical anthologies of Harry Smith. But the grander backdrop of the film never eclipses the delicately constructed family drama at the heart of the film.