A father and daughter live in the woods – and make a better fist of surviving on mushrooms and leaves in a stealth encampment than the historical or futurist menages of The Witch and The Survivalist – though this could easily form a centrepiece of a triptych about civilisation, the wilds, family tensions, and gathering interior and exterior darkness. Will (Ben Foster), an army veteran with PTSD, lives a pared-down, off-the-grid, hand-to-mouth existence, and has done his best to inculcate his values and lifestyle in his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) … though it is increasingly apparent that his path can only really be trodden alone and that her instinctive sympathy with animals and people is a far better survival mechanism in a complicated society than his reliance on a hunting knife and flint and selling off his meds to other homeless vets for pin money.
Director-writer Debra Granik made a splash with Winter’s Bone in 2010. That had a first look at Jennifer Lawrence and a crime-suspense angle to commend it commercially, whereas this is a more demanding, low-key work that I suspect will struggle to attract an audience though people who do show up will be gripped by it. Inspired by Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, which is based on a news item, it unusually plays down the threat. Father and daughter flap books against their tent to shoo off unseen wild dogs, but all the folks they encounter – social workers, a Christian farmer (Jeff Kober), a trucker, some backwoods types (including familiar character face Dale Dickey) – are well-intentioned, sympathetic and try genuinely to help. There are hints of the failures of the system that have driven this troubled veteran off into the woods, but Granik makes this a story of psychology rather than politics. Even an infuriating automated quiz – Tom notes her father doesn’t like to answer questions – is comically set aside as a bureaucrat admits it’s rubbish and gets out pad and pencil to complete Will’s assessment.
The pace is even rather than slow and it’s admirably committed to showing rather than telling, conveying an enormously complicated, intricate relationship with very spare dialogue. Foster is one of the great screen actors of his generation, and does wonders with a madman who is shut down rather than blown up – there are no ‘Oscar clip’ breakdown scenes and the extent of his crazy becomes apparent from the choices he makes, always walking (or hobbling) away deeper into wilderness when any shelter involving interaction with people who aren’t his daughter threatens to become permanent. McKenzie, a New Zealand actress, matches him with an intense, expressive, no-easy-way-out performance – Tom’s emotional range is inhibited by home-schooling and the limitations of living with one person, but McKenzie shows her easy interest in scenes where she bonds with others (a boy and his prize rabbit, a trucker and a dog, a bee-keeper) and her eventual admission (with one single tear track) that ‘the same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.’
An odd circumstance of the order of films being released means that audiences who have seen Hereditary might find themselves chilled at moments which here signify a lasting bond between daughter and father – as Tom uses a tongue-click signal to call out to Will.