(director/writer: Debra Granik; screenwriters: Anne Rosellini/based on Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment”; cinematographer: Michael McDonough; editor: Jane Rizzo; music: Dickon Hinchliffe; cast: (Ben Foster (Will), Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie (Tom),  Michael Draper (Runner), Jeff Rifflard  (Vet), Dale Dickey (Dale), Dana Millican (Jean),  Derek Drescher (Larry), Isiah Stone (Isiah), Jeff Kober (Mr. Walters), Alyssa Lynn (Valerie), Ryan Joiner (Tiffany), Ayanna Berkshire (Dr. Berkshire) Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Linda Reisman/Anne Rosellini/Anne Harrison; Bleeker Street; 2018)

“An awesome off the grid survivalist drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An awesome off the grid survivalist drama based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment.” The novel was based on the true story of a father and daughter discovered in 1999 living undetected in a Forest Park cave. The talented Debra Granik (“Stray Dog”/”Down to the Bone”) directs and co-writes with Anne Rosellini a terrific heartwarming, compassionate and challenging script.

A widower PTSD-afflicted, probably, Iraq War veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, New Zealand actress) for years have been living an adventurous but lonely existence by dwelling in a vast urban nature reserve park, called Forest Park, in Portland, Oregon, a place where it’s illegal to camp. Using his Army survival nature skills, the pair forage in the park for mushrooms and pick various fruits and collect water from the rain. They sleep together in a tent, without incest but in a tender father-daughter way. At times they go into town for supplies (using money he gets from selling to drug dealers in tent city the free meds he was prescribed by the incompetent VA hospital), but mostly through careful vigilance and drills avoids contact with the outside world. Their so-called idyllic life changes when a park visitor reports them to park rangers, who arrest them for vagrancy. After questioned, their case is given to a concerned social worker Jean (Dana Millican), who in their supposed best interest finds for them a sparse furnished house on a Christmas tree farm and work on the farm for dad, and makes the home schooled girl, above average in reading, enroll in school.

Life is safe but boring on the tree farm, as Tom learns to ride a bike, about iPhones and becomes friends with the rabbit-raising young farm boy Isiah (Isiah Stone). When Will gets restless, they head north to a rural co-op in Washington State, where Tom learns about bee-keeping and is taken with their neighbors’ hospitality. Despite living a desirable rural life, the deeply troubled father pines a return to the freedom and isolation of the wilderness, while the daughter now values the security of living a more stable life with friends and community. The return to the wilderness is not so easy this time for the anxiety-ridden father and the daughter aroused by life outside her sheltered existence, who is ready to go in a different direction than the anti-social dad –making it also a poignant coming-of-age story.

Its presiding nature message might have been delivered by a sage-like beekeeper, who tells the wide-eyed Tom that the bees don’t bite if you respect their space and they trust you.

Granik’s prior unknown actresses were Vera Farmiga (Down To The Bone-2004) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone-2010), who both became stars. She could also make one of the 18-year-old Thomasin McKenzie. Her quiet but passionate performance was nothing short of brilliant.It should also be noted that the eye-catching photography of Scottish  cinematographer Michael McDonough was quite satisfying.

Leave No Trace

REVIEWED ON 8/13/2018       GRADE: A-