Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace is the most important film about post traumatic stress disorder I’ve ever seen, and a potent, timely and very frank father daughter story that will leave you reeling in the final frames. Not that it’s cloying or melodramatic either. On the contrary, Granik, who made waves with Winter’s Bone some years back, chooses to tell her story in a spare, hushed, realistic manner that at first seems to keep you at a bit of a distance, but before you realize it you’re drawn right in. This immersive story sees Ben Foster as a haunted veteran suffering from PTSD who has chosen to raise his daughter (Thomasin Mackenzie) in the wilderness of Oregon, just outside Portland, living off of the land and keeping mostly to themselves. This is a haven until social services gets wind of their situation and makes every effort to relocate and integrate them back into society, something which Foster’s character just can’t seem to do anymore. Moving from county to county, always on the run from something he can’t even put into words, holding onto his daughter because she’s the only one he has left, this is the life of someone who has been broken and forgotten by most, and it’s tough to see. I read that in pre-production Foster and Granik workshopped the script to remove almost forty percent of the dialogue, to let the silences in between words do the talking. A wise move. Him and Mackenzie are so good you believe them as family for real, seemingly tuned into each other on an elemental level, these are the two best performances I’ve seen from anyone so far this year. They meet many folks on their journey along the Pacific Northwest belt of Oregon and Washington (cue lush,
gorgeous cinematography captured by Michael McDonough), and the one running theme that comes across is compassion. Everyone they meet, from the Oregon social services bureau to an RV park full of quiet, peaceful folk, everyone shows them kindness and tries to understand their plight as best as they can. I’d like to believe that human beings are inherently good, and clearly Granik shares this hope here, with an intimate realism in every character interaction and the direction to anchor every actor, from the two leads right down to the bit players, in something believable and very much human the way we’re used to outside the cinema. PTSD is not in the forefront here either, not used as an emotional device or explored in an analytical manner, it’s subtly hinted at and the most we ever see is the mannerisms playing at the corners of Foster’s eyes, and his blunt inability to exist in a societal way anymore, which eventually drives a heartbreaking wedge between him and his daughter, laid bare in an ending scene that affects to the core and is the gold standard of what acting could, and should be. Other fine work can be found all over in the people they meet along their way, including a kindly farmer (Jeff Kober) who runs a homestay program, a sympathetic ex army medic () and the owner of a Washington RV Park (the great Dale Dickey, who also stole scenes in Winter’s Bone). This film starts out slow, comes on strong and the end will leave you tearful, ponderous about the situation of so many in their country afflicted by this condition, hopeful that family bonds can provide a modicum of healing, and altogether fulfilled in terms of story and atmosphere. One of the year’s best so far.