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‘Leave No Trace’ Is A Remarkable Look At Life On The Fringes Of America

Film
Photo Courtsey of Bleecker Street

Debra Granik’s new film opens today

People on both the left and right sometimes like to assume that culture-makers all live in a bubble—which ignores how many people on the coasts arrived there from somewhere else, as well as the outward-directed gaze of filmmakers like Debra Granik. Over the past decade, Granik has been a unique voice out at the tattered fringes of white America, in grid-adjacent places scarred by wars and addictions. Her tactile portraits are more empathetic than politically binary, and they take on an imaginative lift by considering where, within this world, gifted young women might fit in—or how they might get out. Leave No Trace is a story about a girl growing up and leaving home—it’s just that “home” is no fixed address, it’s wherever her dad is, and her dad is a veteran whose PTSD and paranoia has found them sleeping under a tarp in a forest, buying groceries with money from selling the pills he gets from the VA.

In Granik’s best-known film, the meth-country neo-noir Winter’s Bone, teenaged protagonist Ree Dolly’s intelligence and determination was underscored by the waxing star power of the young Jennifer Lawrence, and channeled into the role of heroine in a hardboiled thriller, one set in the backwoods instead of an underworld, in an Appalachian community erasing itself with drugs on the cusp of the opiate crisis. That was eight years ago, Granik’s last fiction film until now; in between, her documentary Stray Dog profiled a grizzled Vietnam veteran—a first-time actor in Stray Dog—who runs a Missouri trailer park and spends his days on his chopper or counseling a new generation of walking wounded. It’s got a gnarly yet tender vibe, and an understanding of makeshift communities running on the spontaneous charity of people who’ve slipped through the holes in our patchworked safety net, or wriggled free of it out of pride.

Leave No Trace contains traces of both films, beginning with its title, and its suggestion of the invisibility by which Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) and her dad (Ben Foster) move through the world. As the film begins, they’re living in the lush and rainy Pacific Northwest, though this Eden also has room for duct tape and propane, picked up on grocery runs which are clearly as far into society as Dad is comfortable going. Foster is an actor who can be unwatchably twitchy; here, he’s bottled up, and the visible technical effort in his performance works for a character who’s always drilling his daughter on survival skills and training her to evade capture.

This is plainly pathological behavior, which makes it all the more ironic when the two are indeed arrested. Once absorbed within the social services bureaucracy, Tom is told that “it’s not a crime to be unhoused,” but that it is “illegal to live on public land.” (Hmm!) As the system hovers about them, Tom’s father reminds her that “we can still think our own thoughts”; her growing realization that his thoughts are his prison perhaps spurs her desire for socialization.

Tom’s age is ambiguous (McKenzie was born in 2000, but her voice here is girlish and tentative), and nothing about her coming-of-age seems especially feminine—perhaps because of the gender-indifferent way her father has raised her, perhaps because she’s not been forced to self-sort among other boys and girls. She’s old enough, anyway, to run up against the limits of the kind of person she can be without other people’s experiences to soak up. Unlike her father, Tom is genuinely self-sufficient, in that she has intellectual curiosity and inner strength to go along with her hands-on skills. She’s a star in the making, like a real-life Ree Dolly, with energy and intuition manifesting not as the traits of a Strong Female Character, but of a young person who hasn’t remotely hit her ceiling yet. It’s exhilarating to watch her in unself-conscious early-life skill-acquisition mode, interacting with the local 4-H club, or a beekeeper, or the ribbon dancer performing at a local church(!), so starving for the world you worry that she’ll gorge herself on the appetizer course.

The film ends back in the woods, in a new location that’s essentially Granik’s vision of America, a Stray Dog-like trailer park populated with wizened retirees, vets in faded baseball caps, unhip young hippies, and RV racers, all of whom pitch in to help with each other’s grocery bills, and sometimes gather around the grill to trade tunes on an acoustic guitar. It’s not aesthetically pastoral, or especially eco-conscious, but it’s just isolated enough for the damaged or congenitally independent-minded at the lower end of the economic spectrum. It’s a community based around an ethos of out-of-pocket generosity rather than a social safety net—I’d say “compassionate conservativism,” but the politics are, appropriately for Granik, more complicated than that. And someday, friends and colleagues who thought they knew Tom pretty well will be surprised to hear her talk about where she grew up, and be impressed that she knows how to start a fire without matches.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.