REVIEW: Leave No Trace

5 07 2018

There’s an overarching gentleness in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one that’s commendable alone for being practically unrecognizable in today’s culture. The titular phrase does not quite encapsulate the writer/director’s approach to the film, but if her style took on human form, it would not audibly rustle any leaves in the sylvan setting. Even compared to Kelly Reichardt, another restrained humanist director working heavily in the Pacific Northwest, Granik’s naturalism pierces our senses by treading ever so lightly on them.

I knew little about this project or its origins before viewing it – always a wonderful luxury – was surprised to learn in the closing credits that Granik, along with her fellow Oscar-nominated co-writer of “Winter’s Bone,” Anne Rosellini, adapted the film from a novel. While “Leave No Trace” peers deeply into the souls of the two central characters, the film contains scarcely any of the psychological underpinnings necessary to keep a story alive on the page.

Ben Foster’s Will, a homeless veteran living with his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) off the grid in Oregon, clearly carries some baggage to inspire such a drastic break with social norms. Yet Granik refuses to turn his internal anguish into fuel for the narrative. Will is not a mystery for us to solve. He simply is.

Granik seems to view her role as not to film these characters, stand off to the side, and ask why they do what they do. “Leave No Trace” is unobtrusive almost to the point of fault, letting the world of the film breathe, unfurling and concealing itself in equal measure. She relishes in the unhurried moments and languorous journeys without resorting to Slow Cinema tactics of deliberate, self-conscious audience alienation.

Foster tempers his usual wild man tendencies to vibrate along Granik’s wavelength here, and the contrast with something like “Hell or High Water” proves striking. But the film belongs to relative newcomer McKenzie, who captures the pains of maturation with an added layer of confusion stemming from years of social isolation. Granik never sensationalizes Tom watching peers take an endless stream of selfies or listening to girls at a foster home deride her previous lifestyle in the woods as being homeless. She doesn’t have to because McKenzie can express that wild rush of contradictory emotions in her wide, wondrous eyes and such searingly authentic gestures as the quivering of a chin. B

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RiverRun 2015: the best (and worst) of the rest

27 04 2015

RRI wound up seeing 10 films (plus an archival screening of “The Wild Bunch”) at RiverRun, far more than I should have seen given how busy I was that week.  Was it all worth it?

Depends on what movie I was walking out of when you asked me the question.  There were some great films that I was glad to see, but there were also some rather miserable films.  Here’s a sampling of them both.

Stray Dog

Stray DogDebra Granik’s documentary “Stray Dog” follows biker and Vietnam veteran Ron “Stray Dog” Hall as he goes about his business in America’s heartland.  Granik throws us right into the action, providing no context or commentary to set the stage.  Her presence is never acknowledged and seldom felt throughout, making for a documentary essentially without a documentarian.

As a result, the film feels like a rather free-form portrait of salt of the earth americans like Stray Dog and his young Mexican wife Alicia.   Granik’s subject is just … there.  There is no need to provide standard documentary conventions like talking heads to provide information, though there ought to be something to approximate its effect.  Without anything to signal any importance in the proceedings, the film starts to feel like an interminable home video.

“Stray Dog,” all observation and no insight, might have been more aptly titled “Stray Narrative.”

Still the Water

Still the WaterIn one of the first images in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a young Mason plays with the corpse of a bird in his backyard.  An audience of decent intelligence watching the film picks up on this symbol and intuits that it prompts the character to meditate on life and death.  No discussion, no line is necessary.

Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water,” however, makes a two-hour film about what follows the discovery of a human corpse on a beach in Japan.  Its effect is largely measured through two teenage characters who begin to see the interconnectedness between life’s beginning and end.  Kyoko deals with the illness of her mother, while her boyfriend Kaito comes to grips with the separation of his parents.

The film mostly mills about as the unsteady couple trades empty philosophical musings amidst a beautifully shot landscape.  (Water as a metaphor?  Groundbreaking.)  Kawase’s direction is tender and sincere, to be sure, but it all goes to the service of a fairly banal story.

Welcome to Leith

Welcome to LeithA documentary like Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s “Welcome to Leith” is the stuff of nightmares.  In a small North Dakota town, described by someone as “B-roll for ‘The Walking Dead,'” an aging neo-Nazi buys up parcels of property to attract his followers and gain civic influence.  And it’s not just any white supremacist, either; Craig Cobb was kicked out of countries as far-reaching as Estonia and is monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center for leading hate groups.

Nichols and Walker document from both sides battling for the soul of the soil, resulting in a fascinating perspective on the events.  They begin with the conception of town’s denizens – all two dozen or so of them – as decent, humble, and rational people.  The residents of Leith basically consider the mayorship a “family business,” for heaven’s sake!

Watching Cobb and his cronies exact a toll from them makes for a tough watch.  Whether justified or not by the threats and vitriol lobbed their way, Leith’s citizens abandon the moral high ground to wrestle in the mud with those terrorizing their town.  After being pushed to the edge, they decide that the only way to fight insanity is with insanity – a choice likely influenced by the influx of attention on their municipality.

Gripping and downright terrifying, “Welcome to Leith” follows a volatile situation to the brink of explosion … and its impact cannot simply be shaken off by dismissing it as a movie.  This is reality, and even the most upright idealists cannot emerge from it unscathed and unbruised.

Yosemite

YosemiteJames Franco’s short story collection “Palo Alto Stories” has proven a very fertile source material for up-and-coming feature filmmakers.  Actually, that sentence should read, “Anything with James Franco’s name on it these days can find some financial backing and a few film festivals willing to exhibit the final product.”

Granted, the majority of indie projects Franco takes on possess sufficient quality, including Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto.”  Gabrielle Demeestere’s take on Franco lore, “Yosemite,” is far less impressive.  This interlocking triptych of short stories offers a far less effective portrait of a fractured, disaffected suburbia than Coppola’s take on the material.

Much of Demeestere’s work on the film is solid, such as the precise sound design and attention to period detail.  She also draws three solid performances from the pre-pubescent boys leading the segments of “Yosemite.”  Where the film falters is in her patient, casual pacing.  Such a languid tone without sufficient payoff feels like quite a drag, especially because the normalcy observed along the way offers little accompanying profundity.  And do not even get me started on the painfully obvious mountain lion motif…