The director who launched Jennifer Lawrence has found another star in Thomasin McKenzie, who excels as a girl living on the margins with her father in Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace (PG) ****
Adrift (12A) **
Time Trial (15) ****
Given it’s been eight years since writer/director Debra Granik picked up an Oscar-nod for Winter’s Bone, setting Jennifer Lawrence on the path to superstardom in the process, it seems appropriate that her own belated return to fiction should feature characters emerging from the wilderness. In Leave No Trace, a stripped-down survival drama that thrives on her granular attention to detail, Ben Foster stars as Will, a war-damaged veteran who’s been living in the woods of a public park in Oregon with his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). They share a tent, play chess, read books, forage for food and run survival drills that play like a grim version of hide-and-seek. Theirs is a routine built around avoiding detection and securing only what they need. Trips to town are kept to a minimum, with Will selling his prescription meds on the black market to other veterans to fund any such supply runs. It all seems very post-apocalyptic and in a sense that’s exactly what it is – only their apocalypse is an internal one that Will is trying to negotiate by keeping himself and his daughter free from the toxic impact of modern American society and its spirit-killing conformity.
Mercifully Granik isn’t interested in making some fatuous Captain Fantastic-style ode to Henry David Thoreau and alternative wilderness living. She’s got great empathy for characters who exist on the margins, be it Lawrence’s squirrel-skinning teen in Winter’s Bone or Ron Hall, the Vietnam vet turned biker she profiled in her 2014 documentary Stray Dog. Leave No Trace is no different. Will and Tom don’t articulate or parrot any particular ideology; their reasons for being out there are hinted at in the essential papers Will carries in his dry bag, but we don’t get much in the way of back story, even when Tom accidentally (or perhaps not so accidentally) lets herself be seen by a passing trail runner and the outside world – police, dogs, social services – comes crashing in on this frontier-style existence. Instead the story spins off in unexpected and rigorously unsentimental directions as imperfect solutions to their situation are found, solutions that let Tom gradually move centre stage in her own story, utilising the skills and self-reliance drummed into her by her father to become her own person without being subjected to the kind of brutalisation a film like this might be tempted to exploit for dubious dramatic purposes.
Not that the stakes don’t feel high. On the contrary, Granik – who adapted the film with co-writer Anne Rosellini from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment – gives her characters room enough to breathe so we get a full sense of just how precarious their lives really are. She’s aided too by the lived in performances of Foster (who just gets better and better with each role) and McKenzie (a real find who’s performance anchors the movie). Scottish cinematographer Michael McDonough’s earthy visuals, meanwhile, help to capture the curious allure of the wilderness with its promise of freedom and threat of isolation. But it’s Granik’s absolute confidence in telling such a harsh story with such tenderness and subtlety that makes the film stand out. Lets hope it’s not eight years until her next one.
It’s too bad someone with Granik’s sensibility didn’t direct Adrift. This based-on-fact account of a peripatetic American woman who finds herself stranded on the high seas after a storm destroys the yacht that her boyfriend has been hired to sail back to the US could have used some of her no-nonsense grit. That would certainly have benefitted Shailene Woodley. Serving as both producer and star, she certainly commits to the physically ravaging nature of inspiration Tami Ashcraft’s real-life ordeal. Alas, the flash-backing structure detailing her nascent romance with handsome Brit sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), together with a rather hokey dramatic conceit that doesn’t ring true on screen (even though it’s apparently true to the real Ashcraft’s experience) detracts from what could have been a fascinating woman-against-nature drama. That it comes up short is a surprise too given director Baltasar Kormákur made the excellent Icelandic film The Deep – another true life seafaring survival drama. Here he’s very much in the Hollywood gun-for-hire mode that resulted in the disappointing Everest and Contraband. Indeed, the plot isn’t the only thing perfectly described by the film’s title.
Real lives rarely conform to neat narrative arcs and that’s as true of sports stars as anyone else. It’s certainly the case with cyclist David Millar, subject of Time Trial, whose career is one of glittering highs (he became the first British rider to wear the leader’s jersey in all three grand tours) and shameful lows (he was caught doping in 2004 and banned for two years). Having made a comeback and become a prominent anti-doping spokesperson, he wanted to finish his career on a high by competing in the Tour de France for a final time. Instead he found that at 37 he was no longer good enough and was cut from his team. Time Trial captures this final year in all its gruelling agony as he attempts to push his body beyond what’s really possible. The result is an immersive, sobering, brutal film about what it takes to not only compete at that level, but to endure the humiliation of failure when you can no longer physically do what you once took for granted. ■