This past week I screened three films, now in theaters, about the relationships between fathers and daughters. Two are smaller, independent films that have great artistic power, and one is a summer action thriller that is proficient on all levels, but goes for box office receipts and brutality over a good script and a chance to probe the depths and mysteries of the human heart. It's grace over grit.
What's noticeable about these three films is that mothers are absent, and that the bonds between fathers and daughters can be strong and loving. The violence in "Leave No Trace" plays in the background; we imagine it as we witness Will's distress and try to read the tattoos on his body. The violence in "Hearts Beat Loud" is that of an accident that took the life of a mother in an aging, urban neighborhood. The violence in "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" is pervasive, destroys families and is pandered to us as fear-mongering entertainment.
In "Leave No Trace," Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is an adolescent girl who lives off the grid with her military veteran father Will (Ben Foster) in a state park in Oregon. Will teaches his daughter how to live off the land and homeschools her. For cash, Will goes to the veterans' hospital for prescriptions for his post-traumatic stress disorder-induced nightmares and other issues and sells them for cash to other vets living in a nearby camp. Tom's mother seems to have died.
Although they carry out escape drills should authorities discover them, Tom and Will are eventually seen, reported and tracked down by dogs. Although social workers try to be kind, they only want to normalize Tom and Will. A man (Jeff Kober) who owns a Christmas tree farm reads about the pair in the newspaper and offers them a home and work for Will. Social worker Jean (Dana Millican) brings them to a trailer on the property where they live for a while.
Eventually it becomes too much for Will, and they strike out again, this time hitchhiking to Washington state. When Will is injured going for supplies, people from a veterans' RV commune take them in. This is when the film takes on a sense of ineffable human kindness as they experience unconditional caring and generosity from this community that lives on the margins of society. The woman who owns the camp shows Tom where she has hung a bag of groceries every week for decades for a hermit veteran who cannot handle society. She has never seen him or met him. Another woman shows Tom the beehives she cares for, and Tom, in an almost mystical moment, shows her dad how he does not have to be afraid of bees.
At first, Tom, played exquisitely by McKenzie, follows her father like a shadow, but little by little, as she meets new people and discovers a life beyond the forest, she becomes her own person. She begins to resist the cold, rain and discomfort of constant moving. Will is a good man and father, but unable to integrate the trappings and requirements of social living and rules with his instinct for survival. Foster is completely believable as a father giving every inch of his life for his daughter in the best way he can.
This very gentle film was co-written with Anne Rosellini and directed by Debra Granik who gave us "Winter's Bone." "Leave No Trace" is almost perfect. It draws tight the ties that bind father and daughter while showing the brittle fragility of those ties that connect broken spirits with sanity. Benevolent people populate the film. The horror of war that a government inflicts on its own citizens generation after generation in the name of patriotism overshadows everything. If awards were being given today, this would get my vote for best film, actors, the whole ballot.
Thanks to the National Catholic Reporter for permission to reproduce a portion of Sr. Rose's review here. For the complete review on NCR, click here.