On Oct. 4, the Wasserman Cinematheque hosted a special screening of Debra Granik’s ‘85 “Leave No Trace.” The movie, an adaptation of Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment,” follows the nomadic parent-child pair of Will (the captivating Ben Foster), a veteran suffering from PTSD, and his daughter, Tom (played with deliberateness by newcomer  Thomasin McKenzie) as they try to adjust after a disruption in their lives. 

The film, Granik’s first narrative feature in six years since her Academy Award-nominated “Winter’s Bone,” is a welcome return. Once again, she has crafted a thoughtful, observational film that is considered  unconventional in a medium that has veered more and more into dialogue-heavy material. Much of the film’s action plays out wordlessly, relying on the strong, heavily nonverbal performances of its two leads to bolster the narrative.

When the film begins, we are introduced to Tom and Will leading simple lives in the forest, relying on each other for survival. When their tranquil existence is disrupted by a hiker discovering them, the two are expelled from their wooded home by law enforcement and forced to live among members of contemporary society. Much of the film simply observes the tension brought about by this change, as Tom grows more comfortable with life surrounded by First World culture, while her father remains wary of it. 

McKenzie’s portrayal of Tom, wide-eyed, contemplative and restrained, is nuanced and revelatory. Her performance conveys so much of the emotion in the story when the dialogue cannot. Foster brings as much bravura to his performance as his young costar. Somehow, he manages to balance on the tightrope between gruffness and tenderness. The combination of the two performances is utterly captivating. 

Make no mistake: McKenzie and Foster are only part of the team that created this near-perfect film. Granik’s direction imbues “Leave No Trace” with its neo-realistic and submersive atmosphere, and ultimately drives the story. Simple moments, like a father and daughter eating together, become more than their face value. They bear a depth not found  in most films. Everything Granik does feels intentional— her background in documentary filmmaking is undoubtedly to thank. “Leave No Trace” is deeply observational. You get so lost in the small moments depicted in the film that, for an instant, they become real life. Some of that can certainly be attributed to Granik’s insistence on having non-actors playing minor roles in her films. 

One of “Leave No Trace’s” most memorable scenes features Tom interacting with a beekeeper, who is played by an actual Oregonian beekeeper. There is poetry in this moment, largely due to the very real human interaction that is happening before the camera. As the beekeeper teaches her trade to Tom and the bees peacefully crawl along Tom’s hands, you feel completely one with her in the moment.      

As the credits rolled, the film received enthusiastic ovation and applause from the audience, as did Granik when she took the stage after the screening for a discussion with Prof. Alice Kelikian (HIST). Ms. Granik was gracious with her time, taking questions for 20 minutes after the discussion concluded. As she answered questions, Granik displayed her passion for her film with gusto, a passion that, as the audience saw just minutes before, clearly translated into something truly great.