Forging one's own identity at 13 is hard enough; harder still when your father has brought you up outside society, sleeping in a tent in a national park and learning to live off the land. That's where we meet Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Kiwi actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in Leave No Trace, director Debra Granik's muted, heartfelt follow up to 2010's Winter's Bone, the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.
Where Winter's Bone used Ree's missing father as an accessible narrative hook, Leave No Trace's storyline unfolds on less certain terms, making the film, at times, hard to invest in - though never boring. The narrative kicks in as Will and Tom's lifestyle is upended when they're discovered by social services and forced to re-enter society, a move Granik captures with a steady, fly-on-the-wall approach.
The move drives a wedge between Will, who craves to return to the bush, and Tom, who starts to admire a normal way of life. Granik's approach is often elusive to the point of ostracising viewers – but the film's stunning cinematography and Foster and McKenzie's muscular performances save the story from meandering too far off track.
McKenzie has been rightly praised for her breakout performance here; seamlessly taking on an American accent, she captures the wide-eyed vulnerability of a young woman coming into her own with affecting levels of both empathy and strength.
Granik skilfully draws a wide emotional range from the 17-year-old star, and in the film's third act, when Tom has to make some difficult choices, McKenzie captures her pain with a maturity beyond her years. The film's ending leaves a haunting impression, and drives home the central question; how do we make choices for ourselves without hurting the ones we love? In Granik's world, it's not the answer that hurts – rather, it's the journey to find one that does.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Ben Foster
PG (Drug references)
Understated to a fault - but ultimately heartwarming.