Film & Television

Leave No Trace: Director Debra Granik Returns with the Summer’s Most Powerful Movie

Before she was declared one of People magazine’s most beautiful (and one of Time’s most influential), before she was one of the highest paid actresses in the world, before she was the face of Dior, before she became the youngest actress to earn three Academy Award nominations (including a win), before The Hunger Games, parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, Jennifer Lawrence starred in a very small movie.

Very small, but very powerful.

Writer/director Debra Granik shot Winter’s Bone in the Ozarks for a paltry two million dollars. (This was all the budget she could manage after being turned down by more than two dozen potential financiers.) The cast was made up of unknowns along with many locals, and the film was completed in just 25 days. It was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival and, against great odds (only 191 movies were selected out of 9,843 entered), was accepted. It won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film and Best Screenplay Award. This led to a distribution deal and the movie eventually earned more than $16 million domestically and internationally. It also received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

It’s been eight years since Winter’s Bone, and in that time Granik has stepped behind the camera only once, for Stray Dog, an acclaimed 2014 documentary about Vietnam Vet and activist Ron Hall. Until this past week, when her new drama Leave No Trace hit select theaters across the country.

As we’ve bemoaned for years, Hollywood is particularly tough on female directors. When interviewed at this year’s Sundance festival, Granik expressed some frustration about her limited body of work, but also recognized that her projects present challenges.

“Every filmmaker has this short book of films that don’t get made, for a whole host of reasons. There’s a period where you feel low about yourself, like, ‘That was a lot of time and there’s nothing to show for it.’ I’ve tried to tell myself that if you’re going to be a filmmaker, you can’t really talk like that about time, because you’ll hate yourself or feel very worthless. It never felt like an unbusy time. The years were filled with labor as a cultural worker, but yes, the product was scant. I think sometimes, the subject matters I do are not very commercial, so they’re not easy shoo-ins. It takes a bold financier to stand up and figure out what kind of work they’d like to see in the buffet.”

Granik, along with co-writer and longtime collaborator Anne Rossellini, is drawn to outsider stories, intense and intimate portraits of people living on the fringe of American society. With Winter’s Bone, they adapted a novel by Daniel Woodrell that pitted a teenage girl (Lawrence) against the murderous world of backwoods meth dealers. Leave No Trace is also an adaptation, based on Peter Rock’s My Abandonment.

Leave No Trace opens on what appears to be an idyllic father-daughter camping trip. The two forage for food, buttress their campsite against inclement weather, build a fire, read, and play chess. However, as their activity continues, we realize that this isn’t a break; it’s their daily life. The shelter they’ve painstakingly built is home.

Will, a military veteran, and his teen daughter Tom (short for Thomasina) live off the grid in a state park outside Portland, Oregon. They venture into town and civilization only infrequently when they need food or supplies. At a local V.A., Will is able to get prescription drugs, which he sells to other vets living in a tent city at the edge of the park. Despite frequent “drills,” designed to keep their home hidden, Tom is spotted by a jogger one day. Police and social workers arrive and take Will and Tom away.

Will is forced to undergo psychiatric testing, while Tom is put in a juvenile detention center. Fortunately, a Christmas tree farmer reads about them in the newspaper and offers work for Will and a home for them both. Tom welcomes their new life, rescues a bunny, makes a friend, learns to ride a bike. Will becomes more and more tense, and eventually insists that they leave. They travel by bus and then with a trucker into the Washington woods, where a series of accidents leads them to a community of fellow outsiders. While Will recovers from a sprained ankle, Tom begins to put down emotional roots. When he’s finally able to set off again, Tom must choose between the father she loves and finally starting a life of her own. Either decision will be heartbreaking. “The same thing that’s wrong with you, isn’t wrong with me,” she tells him.

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