Leave No Trace was Debra Granik's first fiction film since Winter's Bone in 2010, when I first noticed Jennifer Lawrence. Perhaps it's unfair, but Thomasin McKenzie, the young woman who co-stars with Ben Foster in this movie, is being compared to Lawrence, even though their performances in their respective movies with Granik are different. McKenzie is more subdued than I remember Lawrence being, which is appropriate for her character, a young teen who lives off the grid with her father, who suffers from PTSD. The movie is low-key yet intense, a combination that doesn't seem likely but which is organic and believable here.
That believable feeling is bolstered by the work done by the leads, but also by Granik's treatment of the material, director of photography Michael McDonough's subtle handling of the film's environments, and the editing by Jean Rizzo. All of them walk a fine line, distinguishing themselves without getting too showy. Like I say, low-key yet intense.
My favorite thing about Leave No Trace is the abundance of good people in the film. I'm not sure I ever got over the feeling that someone was going to act badly, because that's what we've come to expect from movies and television, but it never happened. Once again without overdoing it, the various characters try to help one another, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always with good intentions. This is most notable in the father/daughter relationship, and we feel protective towards them, but as the film lets more people into its world, we meet more good people. The father sees this, but he ultimately can't accept it. His daughter, though, is growing, leading to the crucial statement in the movie, when she tells her father, "The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me." It's heartbreaking, and Foster's underplaying is particularly impressive ... he knows she is right.
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)