A father and daughter make their way through the lush greenery of a rainforest. He’s intense, almost haunted. She, in her early teens, seems serene. What are they doing? Living there, it turns out—off the grid and in hiding, as they have been for years. The first few minutes of “Leave No Trace” are as entrapping as the spider webs the camera notices in passing. They catch you up in a suspenseful wilderness tale that opens out to an urgent drama of conflict, beauty and growth.
The director, Debra Granik, made a stunning feature eight years ago: “Winter’s Bone,” which launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence. Here’s another stunner, and another revelation in the calmly radiant person of Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. She plays the daughter, Tom, who loves her troubled dad, Will, unconditionally. (He’s played superbly by Ben Foster. )
I’ll never forget watching Ms. Lawrence’s early scenes as Ree, the 17-year-old heroine of “Winter’s Bone,” and assuming she was some phenomenally gifted amateur the filmmakers had found in the Ozarks, where the story was set. The director’s new film hasn’t arrived unnoticed, so we may already know that Ms. McKenzie is not an amateur from Oregon, where most of the action takes place, but an exceptional young professional. (She’s from New Zealand, though you’d never know that from her flawless American accent.) Still, it’s a similar case of watching a performance so pure and unmannered that it transcends performing. Tom’s devotion to her father is fierce—the essence of the film is the bond between them—but their idyllic forest life can’t last forever, and Ms. McKenzie is at her most eloquent when Tom discovers a larger world she never wanted to live in.
“Leave No Trace” was photographed with lovely simplicity by Michael McDonough, who also shot “Winter’s Bone.” Ms. Granik and Anne Rosellini adapted the screenplay from “My Abandonment,” a novel by Peter Rock. The book, in turn, was prompted by a widely reported story of a Vietnam vet who, faced with homelessness on the streets, chose to spend four years living with his young daughter in a sprawling municipal park near Portland.
The father on screen is a veteran of Iraq, struggling with PTSD. (Mr. Foster’s approach to his role is almost surgical in its avoidance of sentimentality, and all the more stirring for it.) How Will provides for himself and Tom—all we know of her mother is that she’s absent—is portrayed plausibly enough. An educated man who gives her the equivalent of home schooling, Will is a skilled survivalist, and not so unworldly that he doesn’t organize periodic forays into town, where the grid dispenses needed benefits. But the deeper subject is whether the flinty independence that father and daughter share can survive their forced re-entry into modern life, which begins with their abrupt separation—a plot turn with newly ominous overtones—at the hands of law enforcement and child-welfare officials.
In other hands the film might have been a smug fable of virtuous hippies—not just tree-huggers but tree-dwellers—versus straight, rigid society. In Ms. Granik’s telling, love is the binding force, but kindness and generosity keep popping up on both sides of the cultural divide. People may be suspicious at first, as well they might be, about a young girl in the company of a bearded man with hooded eyes, a military cap and a backpack. Yet they want to be helpful, and they are, once they’ve satisfied themselves that nothing unsavory is going on.
That’s not to say the relationship is ideal. From time to time, Tom must contend with her father’s chronic instability. At one apparently settled moment in their new life, he suddenly tells her to pack her things: “Don’t take anything you don’t need.” But what does she need? The question is answered metaphorically at a backwoods mobile-home park, during an enchanting encounter with a beekeeper who opens a hive for Tom to examine. “It’s kind of nice,” the woman says, “to have the trust of a whole box of creatures that have the power to come out and kill you if they wanted to.” When Tom brings Will to see the bees, she holds her hand over their box and says, “You can feel the warmth.”
After a life of isolation with her father, this ardent girl, growing into young womanhood, needs the warmth of her own hive, and she discovers it as she goes: in a welcoming church; in the sweet face of a rural boy; in a 4-H Club that raises prized rabbits; in the matter-of-fact goodness of a local woman, Dale ( Dale Dickey ), who leaves bags of food in the woods for a hermit she hasn’t seen in years. Will’s imperative, by his own lights, has been to make a life for Tom. Hers is to find her own way.
“Leave No Trace” was made by an artist who combines plainspoken poetry with documentary detail. (Ms. Granik’s experience as a documentarian may explain her indulgence in one uncharacteristically saccharine sequence, a picturesque musicale at the mobile-home park.) It’s a gorgeous film, a triumph on top of an earlier one and, not incidentally, a small miracle of concision at a time when audiences increasingly favor stories spun out in episodes and seasons. Here, in less than two hours, lives are discovered, set in passionate motion and transformed.