In Debra Granik’s quietly overpowering drama “Leave No Trace,” the rangy, composed 13-year-old girl played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie has a way of looking back from where she’s come that just about breaks your heart. It feels like she’s always leaving home. The irony is that most people would call her homeless.
When the movie opens, McKenzie’s character, Tom, is living with her father, a traumatized Iraq War veteran named Will (Ben Foster), in the deep woods of Forest Park, the 5,000-acre reserve just west of Portland, Ore. Between occasional trips to the city for supplies and VA meds — which Will passes on to other homeless vets in the park — father home-schools his daughter and trains her in basic survival skills, including duck-and-cover drills for when the authorities come snooping. Tom’s mother is gone, possibly having died giving birth to her.
So she and Will are a self-sufficient unit, the mountain man and his apprentice. “Leave No Trace” is about what happens when society tries to reclaim these two and mainstream them into “normal” living. In the process, the movie shines a gentle but insistent light on America’s underclass and walking wounded, the people in the cracks just getting by.
We’ve seen stories like this in the work of Sean Baker (“Tangerine,” “The Florida Project”), Ramin Bahrani (“99 Homes,” “Goodbye Solo”), Andrew Haigh (“Lean On Pete”), and other independent filmmakers. What we haven’t seen in too long is a movie from Granik, who scored in 2010 with “Winter’s Bone,” a tough, caustic drama of Ozarks poverty that made a star of Jennifer Lawrence and racked up four Oscar nominations, including best picture.
Granik has made one documentary in the intervening years, and that’s it until now, testimony to the difficulties of getting a project funded and green-lit when you’re not a man making movies about supermen. Adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from a novel by Peter Rock (“My Abandonment,” 2009), “Leave No Trace” is deceptively simply shot, edited, told. It follows the events from Will and Tom’s capture by local authorities and absorption into the social-services system, an edifice of well-intentioned bureaucracy that paradoxically offers freedom to the daughter and a cage to her dad.
As the two are shuffled through a detainment center, we glimpse a conflict of humane impulses and inhuman tactics. Will is forced to endure a 468-question computerized test designed to look for PTSD that practically induces PTSD; the man administering the test, by contrast, makes a more direct emotional connection. Tom understands that the social worker (Dana Millican) assigned to her has the girl’s best interests in mind. The old farmer (Jeff Kober) who provides the two with a house wants to bring Will back into the working and religious fold. The enemies are elsewhere, setting policy and sending people like Will to war.
As those who’ve been paying attention have come to expect, Foster’s performance is freighted with a tense, explosive dignity; Will is a good man undone by demons and his tragedy is his country’s. The most special effect in “Leave No Trace,” though, is McKenzie, a New Zealand-born actress who seems to have wandered in off a dirt road, eager to be alive. Tall, gray-eyed, quick to color, slow to speak, she plays Tom as both devoted to the father who has been her North Star since infancy and increasingly curious about other people and other places.
The pair’s travels — from the rural community near the farm, on a bus that serves as a cross-section of the heartland, to an RV encampment populated by the cast-off and the caring — are moving and emotionally real in the ways they bring father and daughter into contact with other struggling Americans, as well as for Will’s tragic inability to belong. “What’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” Tom tearfully tells her father as she prepares to confront whether to join the world or live alone with him.
Granik loves faces that have been lived in and weathered by hard times (including ancient cult folkie Michael Hurley, who turns up at a campfire singalong). She wants us to think about what and who have carved those lines, what divides us as people, and what brings us together. And she finds resilience and hope in a young woman just beginning to turn her gaze to the road ahead.
LEAVE NO TRACE
Directed by Debra Granik. Written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on a novel by Peter Rock. Starring Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. At Kendall Square. 109 minutes. PG (thematic material -- issues of homelessness, poverty, veterans care)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.