After spending last week feeling like a cold, heartless bastard for not picking up what Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
was putting down emotionally, I was glad to have at least the remnants of my basic humanity reaffirmed when Debra Granik's excellent Leave No Trace
left me a wreck for its last fifteen minutes.
Ben Foster is better than I've ever seen him as a damaged father struggling to find a way to exist in the world while still caring for and raising his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie, evoking a warmer Rooney Mara in what should be a career-launching role); the film gently and carefully makes the case for the situation in which these core characters exist, their love and commitment to each other, and the development of the inherent conflict between them without resorting to awards-reel melodrama or histrionics. That restraint - the movie is rated PG and yet never feels anything short of mature and clear-eyed - allows Granik to build to a quiet but still heart-rending climax that feels inevitable, earned, and remarkably powerful while maintaining a minimal amount of dialogue and emoting between the leads.
To the film's significant credit, it never judges Thom or her father as they go through a heightened version of the inevitable separation all children must make from their parents, and that generosity to the protagonists - and nearly everyone they encounter along the way - lends the emotional payoff a sad yet pure feel without the aftertaste that could have come from a more openly manipulative storyteller.
As spare as the story fundamentally is, the imagery is so alluring and Granik's eye for detail is so strong that the narrative feels thick with shading and incident, never allowing any impatience to set in among the audience. Both literally and figuratively lush, the visuals of Trace
take full advantage of the Pacific Northwest, with cinematographer Michael McDonough drawing sharp contrasts between the emerald tranquility of natural world and the harsh ugliness of the urban world, extremes which help make
Thom's eager embrace of the quiet trailer community in which she and her father eventually find themselves
totally understandable and deeply appealing. One of the final shots is a lock to be among the best of the year, encapsulating the way the landscape is used as a tool for character development; I don't think I'll ever forget it.
This is one of the best of a very good year so far, and hopefully it sneaks its way into enough awards talk that Granik can leverage it to deliver another feature before another near-decade passes.