This absorbing and layered tale by Debra Granik (Winters Bone 2010) explores PTSD and its ramifications through the story of a father and daughter living off the grid.
Like Ben in Captain Fantastic (2016), military veteran Will (Ben Foster) has established a spartan yet sufficient life for himself and his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) living rough in an Oregon nature reserve. Their reliance on each other for survival has created a close bond and Tom’s youth means she doesn’t question their life or see how it relates to her father’s nightmares and need to escape. A chance sighting by a stranger alerts the authorities and soon Will and Tom are buffeted from place to place as well-meaning people try to intervene.
The film is based on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, which uses as its jumping off point the real-life story of a Vietnam vet found after living for four years with his 12-year-old daughter in Oregon’s Forest Park nature reserve. Granik slowly unwraps the tale with little overt exposition and it reminded me of Kelly Reichardt’s films, particularly Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Old Joy (2006), in its authenticity and immersion in nature.
The heart of the story is Tom and we see her gradual realisation of her father’s frailty and the limitations his choices impose on her. McKenzie is phenomenal, encapsulating the fierceness and the vulnerability of Tom with little dialogue. You lose sight of the fact that she and Foster are acting, so real does their relationship feel.
Many of the secondary characters are played by people who feel like they are portraying themselves, from the 4-H rabbit club to Blane (David M Pittman), the ex-medic and veteran who understands what ails Will better than anyone. According to IMDB trivia, Granik worked with Foster to remove about 40% of the dialogue to make the film and the father/daughter relationship feel more real. It worked.
The end is lovely – emotional and understated and set fittingly within the verdant green of nature.
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