Jul 24

“Leave No Trace”: Father-Daughter Isolation

Leave No Trace deserves the high praise it’s been receiving for the direction of Debra Granik, who was also behind Winter’s Bone, and the performances of both leads—Ben Foster (Will) and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie (Tom), who play father with PTSD and his teen daughter.

Moreover, echoed in various reviews: “…Leave No Trace is one of the best films of 2018 and promises to make a star of McKenzie” (David Sims, The Atlantic).

Adapted from Peter Rock‘s novel My Abandonment (2009), the hauntingly effective Leave No Trace “explores, with acute sensitivity and narrative finesse, how trauma molds a family’s life, threatens to spill over into the next generation, and might finally be withstood” (Inkoo Kang, Slate).

Which war Will fought in and why he suffers from PTSD, we never learn. Such details seem beside the point when we meet him and his daughter in Forest Park, a 5,000-acre natural preserve off downtown Portland, Oregon. Father and child sleep in a tent, drink rainwater, and subsist on boiled eggs and foraged mushrooms—and when that’s not enough, groceries from a nearby supermarket. (For money, Will sells prescription meds to a camp of veterans who have settled elsewhere in the park.) When Will and Tom are discovered by police—for sleeping on government property, not the drug deals—the authorities have just as much trouble categorizing them as we do. Will and the unschooled Tom aren’t exactly survivalists, or off the grid, or homeless, but there’s truth to those labels, too. The two would prefer to be left alone to their devices. But after officials place them in a comfortable home in a small town where Will is immediately offered a job and Tom encounters kids her own age, it becomes clearer how much wartime trauma has affected their lives—and how much further it’ll continue to do so.

Peter Debruge, Variety: “After being discovered in the nature preserve, Will and Tom are both interrogated by social workers. Our sympathy is with them, and yet, the authorities seem to have a point: Tom needs a chance to interact with other people, a fact McKenzie so effortlessly conveys via the wide-eyed curiosity Tom shows toward a world she has been taught to distrust, but which now holds considerable appeal for her — including not only boys, but the prospect of making friends her age.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “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.”

The Trailer:

Selected Reviews

Tomris Laffly, rogerebert.com: “This gentle, miracle of a film is almost an antidote to Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic,” a 2016 Sundance title that explores similar themes in a comparatively showy, crude fashion.”

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com:  “Granik shows great insight into the struggles of those who choose to ‘opt out,’ those who just want to be left alone, those who literally can’t ‘fit in’ to the larger world. At its very best, it is an immensely moving portrait of a father and daughter who love each other, and who can’t bear to be apart.”

Jon Frosch, Hollywood Reporter: “The filmmaker has crafted an unusual coming-of-age tale, in which a teen declares independence from her parent gradually, gingerly, with tact and consideration rather than rebelliousness.”

Aug 01

“Captain Fantastic”: Lifestyle of Protest

He Prepared Them For Everything Except The Outside World. Tagline for Captain Fantastic

Matt Ross‘s indie film Captain Fantastic is not as its title might suggest. Not a comic-book-style action hero, Viggo Mortensen‘s lead character Ben Cash is actually the patriarch of an alternatively raised family in the Pacific Northwest.

Manohla Dargis, New York Times, sets up the plot:

For years, [Ben] and his ailing dream of a wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have been living with their six kids…on a compound where they have thrived beautifully without electricity, a sewer line or trend alerts about the Kardashians. By day, Ben teaches and trains the children, racing them through the woods like Olympians or Special Forces soldiers. At night, the family plays music together and reads by firelight — leafing through books one page at a time — before bedding down in the communal tepee…

Ben and Leslie have opted to live in seclusion as a matter of principle, having embraced protest as an ideal. At its loftiest, their profound seclusion suggests that they’re spiritual and philosophical heirs to an isolationist like Henry Thoreau; at worst, it suggests fanaticism, cultishness, selfishness…

Instead of holidays like Christmas, the Cash family celebrates Noam Chomsky Day. By way of introducing the noted social philosopher here, one sampling I found of Chomsky is quite relevant to today’s political theater: “The more you can increase fear of drugs, crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all of the people.”

A quote that becomes germane to Captain Fantastic and is voiced by a well-learned Cash child: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”

David Edelstein, Vulture: “You could actually think of the movie as Noam Chomsky’s Little Miss Sunshine.”

Let me explain further…

A major turning point early on involves a crisis regarding Leslie’s mental health. We learn she’s been away for months in order to get help for her bipolar disorder—but soon enough we also find out she’s killed herself. Not fans of Ben’s influence on their daughter, her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) bar him from the funeral, which becomes yet another thing to protest.

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times: “...(T)he Cashes decide to steer their bus toward the big city, crash Mom’s church funeral and honor her wish to be cremated in a Buddhist ceremony.”

A brief summary of what ensues (Alonso DuraldeThe Wrap): “Just when you think the film is smugly poising Ben’s rebel-outsider mentality against the close-mindedness of his late wife’s parents, ‘Captain Fantastic’ steps up and acknowledges that some of Ben’s parenting techniques might actually be endangering his own children, and it makes the case that home-schooling and living off the land can be great and valuable, but socialization skills can come in handy as well.”

Watch the trailer for Captain Fantastic below: