This occasional series will look at overlooked films on popular streaming services -- Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix -- that are well worth your time to view.
Living in the age of pandemic has meant an unwanted walling off, a cordoning of not just physical space but also of human connection and emotion. We attempt to bypass this alienation and accompanying loneliness through social channels, through Zoom conference calls, by even -- heaven forbid for anyone under 30 -- sometimes picking up the phone.
But while we struggle to maintain fresh connection, there are movies that explore the sacrifices of self-isolation. A recommended film streaming on Amazon Prime to watch now -- or anytime for that matter -- is Leave No Trace, a 2018 drama from up-and-coming director Debra Granik, who also directed the more harrowing backwoods film Winter's Bone that handed Jennifer Lawrence her first starring role.
Leave No Trace offers no didactic cautionary tale about isolating oneself from society but instead works more subtly to show how a wall-off life is not for everyone. The film's protagonists, Tom, a 13-year-old girl played in a starmaking turn by Thomasin McKenzie, and her father Will (the great character actor Ben Foster) share a life in the wild surrounded not by people but only by nature.
They live illegally on an eight-mile-square of land in Forest Park, outside Portland, Oregon, and survive by hunting, collecting rainwater in pans, harvesting mushrooms and essentially living off the earth. Will is a war veteran suffering from a form of PTSD who cannot face being around crowds or too much noise and materialistic comfort. Tom only knows this wilderness life, having been raised in the park, educated by Will and barely ever stepping foot outside of her pastoral kingdom. Tom's mother died when she was very young, and her father is Tom's only human companion.
But a mistake on Tom's part leads the authorities to catch up with the pair and attempt to place them in society. The bewilderment on Tom's face when she sees shelter life, takes a shower in a stall, and visits with other city inhabitants tells the tale, in a story with limited dialogue and virtually no backstory.
McKenzie's awkward initiation into a world she has never known is heartrending. The New Zealand actress is known more recently for her role as a Jewish girl hidden from the Nazis in Jojo Rabbit. But she is better and allowed to reveal her full talents in Leave No Trace.
Will and Tom are placed in a rural commune, where Will finds odd jobs to get him by, such as cutting trees, and Tom finds her first hint of romance with a rabbit-raising boy (Isaiah Stone) with a shock of flowing blonde hair. Granik shows the idyllic existence as near paradise, a quiet spot with velvety tree branches and meditative walks. Tom is mentored by the commune's female leader, Dale (Dale Dickey, also a matriarchal figure in Winter's Bone) and soon adapts to the rhythms and rituals of the communal life.
But trouble brews for Will, who cannot adjust to the hum of commerce and having to work with others. He becomes moody, tentative, highly anxious and difficult to be around. Having lived in the woods for many years has made him hardened, a survivalist who has no reason to live when survival is no longer an urgent need.
All this is done quietly and with empathy for the characters. There is no slow burn leading to violence, only the internal changes captured on the faces and bodies of the characters. But the ending is still a bit of a surprise, even when slightly expected.
Granik is skilled at visualizing this alternative existence without casting judgment. Even the early scenes of Will and Tom alone in the wilderness are tender, caring and happy. The fact that a 13-year-old is not going to school and kept from meeting other children is not judged as child abuse or a form of enslavement. It is cherished as a means for Tom to appreciate both her small, nuclear family and the world around her.
This is where the movie shares some traits from other tales of isolation. I think back to Captain Fantastic, a 2016 film starring Viggo Mortensen as a father to six kids living hand to mouth in the forests of Washington state. He is forced to relocate and accused of not caring for his children, one of whom wants to go to college. But in this film, unlike Leave No Trace, he pushes his children to the breaking point physically and intellectually. While at film's end, Mortensen's character softens and sees that he must change his parenting style, he is a bit of a changed man.
But in Leave No Trace, there is never that moment of revelation or any sort of feeling of maladaptive behavior, of harming a child. Tom and Will's existence, while far from perfect and keeping them apart from the relationships in society that can be so rich and necessary, is neither condoned nor condemned. It just is.
There are other, more traumatic films about forced isolation -- a good example is Take Shelter, now streaming and showing a paranoid Micheal Shannon keeping his wife, Jessica Chastain, in a cocoon of safety. It's also worth seeing but nothing like the gentle, natural uplift of Leave No Trace or Captain Fantastic.
As we all are challenged to keep our distance and stay in semi-seclusion from groups, we can take a cue from these films. Done in the right spirit, isolation is not all bad.