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.”

Nov 18

“Moonlight”: Identity-Seeking Across Decades

Three different actors portray three distinct stages of one man’s life and identity search in Barry Jenkins‘s strongly reviewed Moonlight. Noted author Ta-Nehisi Coates has called it the “best take on black masculinity…ever” (Slate).

David Edelstein, Vulture:

…Jenkins puts you inside the head of a closemouthed, fatherless African-American protagonist, Chiron (pronounced Chy-rone), as he grows from a lonely boy to a lonely adult, with a single moment of connection in the middle of the middle section: a brief sexual encounter with a teenager named Kevin on a Florida beach. The movie’s first half builds to that moment, the last half falls away from it. But you can’t pin Moonlight down as a gay-awakening film — or a fear-of-coming-out film or anything centering on sex or love. It’s deeper than that. The title alludes to an idea about the moon: that in its light you realize that only you (not the gods, not other people) can decide who you want to be.

In Part One he’s a child: small, black, fatherless, possibly gay, and living in a poor area of Miami with a drug-addicted mom. Peter Debruge, Variety:

Even before Chiron is old enough to understand the notion of homosexuality, his classmates seem to have labeled him as such. The other kids openly torment the runt-like child (played by Alex Hibbert at this stage), whom they call ‘Little’ and dismiss as ‘soft,’ chasing him to a local crack den, where he’s discovered by a sympathetic drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, breathing humanity into a stereotype). Since Little refuses to speak, Juan has no choice but to bring him back to the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, a doll-like beauty with remarkable inner strength) — and in so doing, takes his place as a sort of surrogate father and role model.

In the middle part of Moonlight, states Eric Kohn, Indiewire, “…Chiron is an alienated teen (Ashton Sanders)” whose despair and anger culminates in a tragic turning point. And by the finale: “…he has undergone a dramatic transition into young adulthood and taken on the nickname ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes). But he still hasn’t quite figured out how to express his deepest feelings, and therein lies the movie’s greatest source of intrigue. Jenkins and his extraordinary cast generate powerful suspense around questions of when, and how, the repressed character might find emotional liberation.”

The trailer follows:

Selected Conclusions

David Edelstein, Vulture: ” Moonlight isn’t weighed down by psychologizing, but you can infer all sorts of things about the effect of an absent father on Chiron’s sense of self (the name evokes the centaur — half-man, half-horse) and the power of a culture given to crushing all manifestations of male sensitivity (let alone gayness). You can infer the dire impact on Chiron of a crack-addict mother — she does, tearfully, in later scenes, when the damage is done and his character formed. But it might be better just to think about the moon — and how all our choices of who to be might look in its pitiless light.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “All the clichés of the coming-of-age movie have been peeled away, leaving something quite startling in its emotional directness. And though the movie is never sentimental, while watching you become aware how rarely we get to see black male characters onscreen in such an emotionally revealing light.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time: “…leaves you feeling both stripped bare and restored, slightly better prepared to step out and face the world of people around you, with all the confounding challenges they present. There’s not much more you can ask from a movie.”

Jul 11

“Boyhood” Film Follows 12 Real Years

Boyhood follows the development of a young man within his family and environment over the course of 12 real years, a unique way to film a non-documentary. To pull this off, in fact, director Richard Linklater took quite the gamble that all his actors would remain available over this period.

The boy in question is Mason (Ellar Coltrane). His parents are played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. In addition, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei makes her acting debut playing Mason’s sister Samantha.

Although the film clocks in at 164 minutes, the critics don’t seem to mind—they’ve actually been heaping high praise.


Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “…Boyhood is an epic about the ordinary: growing up, the banality of family life, and forging an identity. Everything here has been seen in movies and on television countless times before — marital spats, a divorced dad trying to connect with kids he sporadically sees, teenagers acting out, parents having to let go — but perhaps never has the long arc of the journey from childhood to college been portrayed as cohesively and convincingly as Richard Linklater has done in a film that can be plain on a moment-to-moment basis but is something quite special in its entirety.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Everything and nothing happens over the course of Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood.’”

Take a peek at the trailer:


Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

They’re a couple who got married too young and have already hit Splitsville by the time we meet them, and both people are flawed and complicated characters for whom we feel immense compassion. Mason Sr. is in most respects a better dad than the sequence of abusive, alcoholic husbands Olivia tries out later, but he’s also an irresponsible GTO-driving Peter Pan type, who wants all the most dramatic parts of fatherhood without putting in the work. Our sympathy flows most naturally toward Olivia, an undeniably heroic single mom with a pattern of dubious decision-making. Part questing spirit and part nesting instinct, she keeps pushing her kids around the Lone Star State in search of an elusive dream of normalcy and stability, before understanding she must create and define those things for herself.

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Whenever Olivia finds a decent man, she marries him, until such time that his temper becomes too much to bear. The first of these separations brings dramatic fireworks early in the film, rendered all the more intense by the fact that Mason and Samantha are forced to leave their new siblings behind with an abusive and alcoholic stepfather (Marco Perella).”


Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “With all the geographic, educational, parental and emotional adjustments Mason and Samantha are forced to make, they do pretty well, all things considered…With all the childhood traumas, extreme behavior and tragedies that have been depicted in both narrative and documentary films over the last couple of decades, it’s both bracing and refreshing to see more normal (if far from ideal) youthful experience represented in such a nonmelodramatic and credible way.”