Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

10 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, let’s get this out of the way—the only thing “Unfriended: Dark Web” has in common with “Unfriended,” the 2015 film to which it claims to be a sequel (or continuation), is that they both occur in real-time via computer screen. That’s about it. They’re both horror films (although one is more of a supernatural horror and the other is along the line of psychological terror) that happen to share the same in-computer gimmick. (And just a couple months after “Dark Web” was released, we got “Searching,” a superior thriller that did even more with the gimmick. But we’re not going into that topic today.) I should be annoyed by this bit of lazy marketing, but at the same time…I don’t want a sequel to “Unfriended,” a film that works perfectly fine as a stand-alone story. So, instead of getting that, we have something different that also carries the name “Unfriended” above its title “Dark Web.” How does it work as its own creation?

Both “Unfriended” and “Dark Web” are horror films that serve as parables for how the Internet rules our lives. With the former, it was a cautionary tale about cyber-bullying. With the latter, it’s about how we often take the Internet for granted. While neither of them are to be taken too seriously (they are mainstream escapist entertainments after all), they do provide good attempts at capturing the essence of how we live online and commenting on it as well. You could laugh at them, listen to them, or simply accept them for what they are and do both… That’s sort of where I stand. I’ve watched “Unfriended” countless times since I wrote a three-star review for it, and I’ve since regarded it as one of the more entertaining horror films in the past few years. Time will tell whether or not I’ll look at “Dark Web” the same, but…it is still a solid film and I’m recommending it.

As I’ve mentioned, “Dark Web” is a sequel in name and style only. The story and characters are different, there’s a different killer attacking our logged-in Millennial protagonists, and the film digs deep into the concept of cyber-stalking (as much as it can, given limited information prior to production—I don’t know how accurate this film in depicting the Dark Web). The 90-minute hell ride begins as college-aged Matias (Colin Woodell) logs onto a laptop he stole from a cyber café (he claims it had been in the lost-and-found for weeks). He looks through it to get used to it and tries out a new app he’s created that will allow him to communicate better with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), before engaging in online game night with his friends, which include conspiracy-theory podcaster AJ (Connor Del Rio), lesbian couple Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) & Nari (Betty Gabriel), English techie Damon (Andrew Lees), and Asian DJ Lexx (Savina Windyani). Soon enough, problems arise when the original owner of the laptop, known as “Charon IV,” communicates with Matias, demanding his laptop back. When Matias digs deeper into the hidden files in the laptop, it becomes clear that this is no game. Things get even more serious when Charon IV reveals there’s far more here than meets the eye, and before long, Matias must use his wits to find ways to save himself and his friends before people start getting killed one by one…

I have to admire both “Unfriended” movies for being able to turn out stories that couldn’t have been easy to develop with the limitations of telling them in real-time and keeping them restricted to the perspective of one laptop screen. There are some glitches and technical errors here and there (even when they try to capture the realism of when our machines often break down, there are some little things that are easy to nitpick), but they still do well at capturing the realism well enough so that I’m not taken out of the movie altogether. I suppose my biggest gripe with the technical aspect of “Dark Web” was that the video is too crystal clear for anyone who has ever engaged in Skype video calls to take seriously—I guess it was to show a contrast for the static-fueled glitches that occur whenever the Dark Web users enter the video screens, but it’s not particularly subtle. But even that is taking too much from a nitpick.

In ditching the supernatural aspect that kept the story for “Unfriended” going, “Dark Web” goes for a more “realistic” approach and made it more of a dark thriller that has something to say about how dangerous it is to spend much of our lives online. For those who are affected by this approach, it is either going to lose viewers by losing their credibility or depressing them. I simply saw it as a horror film—nothing more, nothing less. The acting was decent, the story kept me guessing, I liked the twists and turns (especially ones that were aided by the main character trying to keep the main plot secret from his friends as he knows the laptop owner is watching his every click), and while it didn’t leave me with as much of an impact as something like “Searching,” I still appreciate its ability to do much with very few.

I’m not going to get into the multiple endings that “Unfriended: Dark Web” has been known for since it was originally revealed the studio just didn’t know how to end it… But I will say I like the original alternate ending a little better than the DVD’s alternate endings and especially more than the theatrical ending.

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Three Identical Strangers (2018)

9 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. Just read this next paragraph and decide for yourself if you think it’s a true story or something Hollywood would have rejected on the spot:

A community-college freshman is recognized by strangers on campus, even though he has no idea who they think he is. Someone asks him questions, and it turns out he shares the same birthday, the same adoption agency, and of course the same physical features (such as meaty hands) as his friend, to whom he takes to visit. It turns out these two are identical twin brothers who meet each other for the first time at age 19. When the story reaches the news, who should happen upon it but ANOTHER BROTHER?? Yep—it turns out there were triplets who were separated at birth. (There were actually quadruplets, but the fourth brother died at birth.) After having finally discovered one another by chance, they become close friends. But that’s not all. It turns out the triplets’ separation was part of an experiment brought on the adoption agency to try on a “nature-versus-nurture” study, by placing the three infants with families at different economic levels—one wealthy, one middle-class, one blue-collar…

It’s a story so unbelievable it HAS to be true. And upon watching the first few minutes of Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers,” a gripping, unbelievably riveting documentary that tells the triplets’ story, I was blown away by the fact that this wasn’t written for the screen. As the film continued, I was even more impressed to learn more about where they came from and why all of this was done to/for them.

I should just stop the review right here, because the less you know about “Three Identical Strangers” going in, the better. And while I don’t want to give away much of what we learn from this wonderful documentary, I will say what I took away from it in the end: the importance of loving, sensitive parenting, no matter what economic class these people were raised in.

“Three Identical Strangers” captures that meaning brilliantly. At times, it’s very funny the way many of these things worked out. Other times, it’s infuriating when you think about the people who tried to play God with these infants. And the rest of the time, it’s bitterly tragic, especially in the case of the depression all three of the triplets go through, particularly one named Eddy, and the direction that takes. But it also makes you think about what would have happened to you if you had been raised differently or if your own siblings had been raised differently. All that matters in the end is nature and the kind of parenting that’s important in everyone’s life.

I loved “Three Identical Strangers” so much. It’s wonderfully made, has numerous twists and turns that kept me invested, contained memorable characters in real-life people, and also might have provoked more discussion than any other film I’ve seen all year. (And yes, that includes “The Tale” and “Leave No Trace.”) It’s a compelling, fascinating documentary that will definitely be ranked high on my best-films-of-2018 list.

The Tale (2018)

8 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The story you are about to see is true…as far as I know.”

That’s the narrating line of dialogue that opens writer-director Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” and it reminds us of the infamous quote, “Truth is in the eye of the beholder.” “The Tale” is Fox’s account of an incident that happened to her when she was very young (in her early teenage years, even), how she came to terms with it, and how she tried to find answers from other people who were involved. The answers are not clear from the others, but she knows what happened to herself.

“The Tale” is documentarian Fox’s fictional telling based on a story she wrote at age 13…that was based on her experiences as a victim of sexual abuse. It’s a film that is as powerful as it is uncomfortable. And it’s undoubtedly one of the most important films in recent memory for that very reason.

Laura Dern stars in a truly excellent performance standing in for Fox, playing a documentary filmmaker named Jennifer. She seems to be doing well for herself, enjoying a nice Manhattan apartment with her long-time fiancé (Common), working hard on doc projects, and teaching non-fiction film at a local university. But even before her overprotective mother (Ellen Burstyn) demands an explanation after discovering an essay she wrote at age 13, we begin to suspect some uneasiness within her, as she seems somewhat closed-off and self-loathing and is more interested in her documentary subjects. (Commentary!)

What is this essay her mother found from decades ago? Well, it’s about a “relationship” that developed between 13-year-old “Jenny” (Isabelle Nelisse) and her “older” boyfriend. Upon rereading the essay, Jennifer remembers just how “old” this man was. He was her professional coach from an intensive horse training camp she attended: Bill Allens (played in flashbacks by Jason Ritter and in present-day by John Heard), who was in his 40s when he began sexually grooming Jenny before he would “make love” with her.

As Jennifer starts to read more and more into her past, she realizes the true terror of what came upon her by a man she had come to trust and admire at such a young age. Being an investigative documentarian, she uses her skills to look further into what happened that fateful summer over 30 years ago. “The Tale” is able to move from present-day events to flashbacks, as she’s learning more about what truly happened and what MAY have happened, without a hint of clumsiness. There’s one bit I loved in which we’re first taken back to that summer when Jennifer was 15, when she’s corrected that she was 13 and thus we’re returned to the same scenes (only played by a different actress than who we started with)—that lets us know right away that truth and memory, especially in a case like this, don’t always go hand in hand. The more Jennifer realizes the harsh difference between what she thought was happening in the moment and what actually happened in hindsight, the more she can’t deny of the hauntings of her past and how it affected her even at age 48.

What happened with 13-year-old Jenny, 40something Bill, and the tall, beautiful and exotic horseback-riding coach Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), with whom Bill was having an affair, is not as “beautiful” as Jenny would like to believe, though we can understand how she would have felt that way. In her mind, she was a girl who felt older than she was, being taken seriously by two mature, classy adults who gave her attention and let her in on their secrets. (To show even more of how different 13-year-old Jenny was from 48-year-old Jennifer, we even see the two interact with each other, as Jennifer shares a “conversation” with her past self and tries to recollect and understand what really happened with Jenny.) It’s fascinating to see Jennifer reconnect with people from her past, such as Mrs. G (played in present-day by Frances Conroy) and other women who attended the camp as girls, and yet it’s also incredibly disturbing when certain points of truth rise to the surface…

In making the film, Jennifer Fox makes the brave choice by not merely hinting at the physical abuse she encountered at a young age—she instead takes special care in showing us the horrific seduction from an adult man to a young girl and the eventual physical action, using adult body doubles for the rape scenes. She wants us to know what she felt, both then and now. And we’re with her fictional counterpart, played brilliantly by Laura Dern, every step of the way, right down to the moment in which she confronts present-day Bill head-on. It’s painful and uncompromising and equally brilliant and powerful.

What we have in “The Tale” is a “tale” of people who believe in what they feel in an attempt to shield themselves from the true harshness that they’re committed to. Jenny believed she was experiencing love for the first time, Bill believed in his own sick and creepy methods, Mrs. G believed in her reasons for having her own extramarital matters, and so on. Jennifer begins to believe that the faults of her haunted subconscious were caused by her own doing, when in actuality, it was the people who used her and took advantage of her that were responsible. The journey she embarks on will determine who she was as Jenny, who she is as Jennifer, and how she got from there to here. “The Tale” is one of the best films of 2018; one I will definitely not forget anytime soon.

Searching (2018)

28 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are people who will compare “Searching” to “Unfriended,” because they share the same gimmick of setting a movie entirely within the confines of a mobile device. Well…almost. “Unfriended” (and another similar film, “The Den”) kept the focus coming from one computer screen and mostly in real time. “Searching” tells its story through various forms of media—laptop screens, cellphone screens, public news footage, YouTube videos, hidden-camera surveillance footage, even GPS. If nothing in the story for “Searching” can be recorded in any way, shape or form, then it didn’t happen. “Searching” utilizes just about every modern convenience imaginable to tell its story, and thankfully, it doesn’t feel forced.

Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, “Searching” is a tense, suspenseful, very effective mystery-thriller that had me on-edge, kept me guessing, and delighted me in doing both.

John Cho stars in a great, understated performance as David Kim, a widower raising his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). After the death of Pamela (Sara Sohn), David’s wife and Margot’s mother, the two barely communicate, save for text messaging and FaceTime. Margot disappears one day (and David doesn’t realize she’s missing until well into the next day), and it’s every parent’s worst dream come true—David’s daughter is missing, she’s not returning his calls, he gets more frantic by the passing minute, and now we have a gripping mystery…

As he believes something is very wrong here, David receives the help of police detective Vick (Debra Messing) and also does his own investigative work by looking through Margot’s laptop she left behind before her disappearance. In addition to contacting her online friends to see if they have any answers, David also combs through her Facebook, her Tumblr, and other sites she’s been sharing pieces of her life with. While he’s doing this, he learns the sad truth that the girl he comes to know through the online clutter is not the daughter he thought he knew, as he discovers new things about Margot that he didn’t know before. Add that to the question of what could have possibly happened with Margot, and David’s world is shattered uncomfortably.

The mystery surrounding this girl’s disappearance is very effective in how pieces of this complicated puzzle keep coming into place. But “Searching” takes it a step further by having a deep emotional center. Through a powerfully poignant opening sequence, we see David and Pamela raise their daughter up until Pamela’s tragic death. (This is told to us using various videos—one great little touch is the progression of the technology with the passage of time.) It’s a simple technique, but we immediately understand the toll this woman’s death has taken on her husband and child, and it’s very well-done. According to a making-of special (which appears on the DVD extras), writers Chagantry and Sev Ohanian first came up with the opening scene to make the story more character-driven and were able to develop the rest of the story through the characterization. I don’t doubt it, because the rest of the film works mainly because you feel you know David and are heartbroken when he realizes Margot hasn’t been the same since Pamela’s death, and neither has his relationship with Margot.

It’s all played with a great deal of credibility. The way Chagantry tells this story, with various forms of media at the assistance, it feels real. And the storytelling at hand here is very fresh, very tense, and very rewarding because not all the answers are easy to guess by the end of the film. It’s an intriguing mystery with a great deal of heart. It can generate emotion as well as it can raise suspense.

What also plays a big part in the film’s credibility is the lead performance by John Cho, who is utterly brilliant in the role of a troubled father desperate to find his missing daughter if for no other reason than to somehow reconnect with her. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him, even when he does something like track down and humiliate one of Margot’s peers who cracks a joke about her “missing” status. It’s easy to understand his mindset throughout the film.

I’m not sure “Searching” would have worked nearly as well if it was shot and edited more like a traditional film instead of the electronic-media approach. I feel like it had to be presented in this format, not merely because it turns the viewers into voyeurs of these characters’ personal lives or simply that it’s a neat, effective way of telling this story, but because it can also show how our modern conveniences at hand can come in handy in desperate times. (Though, I get the feeling it may also teach overprotective parents to control their kids’ mobile devices.) But overall, I admire the unconventional manner than Chagantry chose to tell this deeply effective story. If that didn’t work, I probably wouldn’t love “Searching” as much as I do. I saw it twice in theaters, and I look forward to more viewings at home.

A Quiet Place (2018)

28 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Horror films can generate effective scares with ominous music & dialogue…but a horror film like John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” is one that reminds me how easy that can be. What’s tricky is building suspense and creating thrills through visual storytelling. “A Quiet Place” manages to pull it off, and it’s one of the best horror films in recent memory. (And even though we’ve had many terrific horror films in the past couple years, one of which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, I don’t think I’ll call that “hyperbole.”)

“A Quiet Place” is centered on one family: the Abbotts (Krasinski as dad, Emily Blunt as mom, Millicent Simmons as daughter, Noah Jupe as son). They’re one of the few families that are still surviving the aftermath of some sort of alien invasion, even as many of the otherworldly creatures still stalk the earth. Life as they know it has ceased to exist for a long, long time, and they rely on two things in order to survive—one is each other, but the most important is complete silence. You see, these things attack at the slightest loud noise, and being that they’re still in their area (and even killed off another family member in a creepy prologue), living in silence is the best way to maintain survival.

We don’t see the attack—the film begins on “Day 89,” after it. We’re not even entirely sure as to how it happened. (Though, we do get some imagery such as newspaper headlines to give us a few clues here or there.) We just know it’s not as important as what survivors have to do next. These unfriendly beings took over our world, and our main characters just have to deal with it. That’s a neat hook, and it’s interesting to see how people in this new world get through their daily routines with almost total quietness. (They also communicate through sign language, as the daughter is already deaf—that detail itself raises suspense as she wouldn’t be able to hear a noise she herself may cause.) Things start to get even more dangerous when the expecting mother is about to have a new child, and everything has to be set in order to protect the family during the delivery. But no matter what they do, danger still comes for them…

The tone and atmosphere play an enormous role in the film’s success. The quiet in this film is practically deafening; it made me realize how claustrophobic it can make someone feel. When a loud noise finally comes up, you’re instantly on-edge because you can’t shake the feeling that something terrible is about to happen… Krasinski proves to be a masterful director in how he can rely on visual storytelling to keep the audience engaged and on the edges of their seats, and he uses the simplest methods to keep us invested. (One particular setup involves a nail…you know what that’s going to lead to, even if you don’t know when it will pay off.)

An obvious comparison is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” which also featured an alien attack from the perspective of one rural family in a farm setting. But with this particular family trying to find ways to keep quiet while trying to stay together, you can’t deny they have more complications to encounter in this particular case.

The gripes I have with “A Quiet Place” are mere nitpicks. While the sound design is carefully controlled for the most part, it’s when Marco Beltrami’s musical score kicks into gear during certain scenes that the effect those scenes could’ve gotten are somewhat lost in translation. And while I give credit to Krasinski for not dwelling on early long shots of the creatures, which are CG spider-like beasts, I wish he could’ve continued that “less-is-more” technique in the climax. And for a film that does so well in relying on silence to scare us, it still couldn’t resist a few jump-scare moments here or there, unfortunately.

But I can’t let little things like that get in the way of how I ultimately feel about “A Quiet Place.” It’s a gripping, compelling, scary, well-acted, wonderfully-shot chiller. It’s a terrific exercise in quieting down and using understated terror methods to get a reaction from us. And…yikes, that nail…

Boy Erased (2018)

22 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are still “Conversion Therapy” programs being practiced in a select few of the United States. As this piece of information was dropped on me and the audience before the closing credits of the new film “Boy Erased” sent us farewell, I felt a bigger lump in my throat than I did during the scene in which our main character undergoes mental abuse at one of these “Conversion Therapy” programs. That this is still happening in quite a few areas makes me feel for those suffering at the hands of people who probably mean well but for the most part resort to bullying tactics in their attempts at “helping” and “curing” homosexuals.

“Boy Erased” is based on a memoir of the same name written by Garrard Conley, who underwent one of these programs himself and wrote articles that exposed the truth about the harmful aspects of the process. The idea is to “convert” someone who is gay or bisexual and make them heterosexuals, and “Boy Erased” tells the compelling story of one man who challenged the idea by becoming stronger and more well-balanced, both in terms of his sexuality and his individuality.

Jared (Conley’s counterpart, played by Lucas Hedges) has a great life in a middle-class Arkansas community. He has loving parents (Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman), he’s artistic, and people seem to really like him. But things change when he tells his parents that he often thinks about men and might be gay. His mother, Nancy, is heartbroken, while his father, Marshall, a devoted Baptist pastor, feels like his entire universe has been shattered. Marshall gently informs his son that he cannot be gay and live under his same roof. So, Jared agrees to have his parents direct him to a Christian “conversion camp” in Memphis, TN called “Love in Action,” which is dedicated to reprogram men and women who are gay…or who think they’re gay, as the program leader and staff believe it’s a choice to be gay.

Jared isn’t sure of what the program is all about, nor does the shadiness of the day clinic seem to faze him (or his mother, who should be more concerned that nobody will let her inside the premises) upon first arriving—no cellphones are allowed, his journal entries are to be monitored, and no one is to mention anything about what happens within the program. He does it because he wants his father’s love and respect, and, like most Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, doesn’t want to be seen as an “abomination” in the eyes of God. At first, everything seems fine. The man who runs it, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed this film), seems nice and willing to help him and his fellow “converters.” But over time, he becomes disturbed by Sykes’ methods being forced upon everyone to ensure the conversion is effective. Physical and mental bullying is at hand in the name of helping these people, and it doesn’t take too long for enough to be enough.

I get that many of these “Conversion Therapy” programs do get positive results from people who go through with it. But there are clients who take so much abuse from the people in charge of it before they become even more confused or enraged or both—some of them even kill themselves as a result… This is an aggressive practice that can’t be taken lightly; that Southern White Baptists feel the need to “change” people’s sexual orientation because of their strong beliefs that homosexuality strays people further away from God. (It’s this kind of homophobia that have made fundamentalist religions more fearful of the consequences of being gay…and also the same kind of homophobia that makes gay Christians fearful of coming out to their loved ones and being true to themselves.) While it’s not as active as it was in the last three decades, it’s still unfortunately operational. “Boy Erased” shines a light on not just the idea but also the attitude in general—and it’s very effective in doing so.

One of the reasons for its effectiveness is that the characters aren’t portrayed as black-and-white good guys & bad guys. That’s especially true of Marshall and Sykes. These two could have been written and portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures; instead, they’re portrayed as real people who don’t know the answers, think they’re doing the right thing, and want to find ways to help. You get the sense that Sykes has been through this sort of thing before and is now determined (which is a nice way of saying he’s “fanatical”) to help others. His methods are undoubtedly questionable, as he runs the place as some would run a drug rehab clinic or a boot camp, but that’s what makes his story (while not the key focus) all the more heartbreaking. He’s not a monster; he just doesn’t know how to reach certain people (to say the absolute least).

(Side-note: Please stay and study the texts that reveal updates on how the real-life story played out. What we learn about Sykes makes this character even more interesting.)

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Jared and Marshall, as Jared reveals something to his father that throws his world out of alignment and Marshall has to accept it or lose the son he still loves. He’s a thoughtful, old-fashioned religious man who of course doesn’t understand what his son is going through. But that doesn’t mean he has lost his love for his son. (This is another strength of the film: showing us how Jared’s coming-out not only affects Jared but Jared’s loved ones as well.)

As hard-hitting and gripping as the material is (and it’s VERY hard-hitting and gripping), what makes it all even stronger is the acting that carries it through. Lucas Hedges, one of today’s best young actors (following great work in a role somewhat similar to this one in “Lady Bird” last year), makes it hard for audiences not to feel anything for this kid when he’s happy or sad or upset or angry (all four important emotions to capture for a role like this one). Nicole Kidman delivers some of her finest work as Jared’s mother, who loves her son and knows when he’s sad or hurt that it’s time to step in and help him. Joel Edgerton wrote and directed the film and also knows not to make his character of Sykes into anything less than a bully with an agenda. But the film’s absolute best performance comes from Russell Crowe as Marshall. This is a man whose world is rocked by an important revelation and is forced to confront what he sees as a nearly impossible choice. You can practically feel his heart breaking in certain scenes, particularly in the final act of the film, and Crowe delivers some of his best work as an actor.

When adapting Conley’s book, Edgerton knew not to go for over-the-top melodrama and give us simple answers for these people who are all going through something internally and externally. It simply illustrates a series of injustices and ultimately shows that where there is courage and hopefulness, there is also tolerance and acceptance. As understated as “Boy Erased” may be, I doubt its impact will leave me anytime soon. This is one of the best films of the year.

Leave No Trace (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Debra Granik must have a real talent for discovering actresses. Think about it—in 2004, she directed then-unknown Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone”; in 2010, she made “Winter’s Bone,” the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. I sincerely hope that this streak continues with Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a New Zealand actress who delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and has the makings of a star on the rise. In Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one of the most moving films of 2018, she delivers a nomination-worthy performance as a teenage girl who is devoted to her mentally struggling father…but tries to find it within herself to drive away from him.

“Leave No Trace” is a harsh and brutal yet heartwarming and terrific drama about a child breaking away from a parent. It begins with Will (Ben Foster), a widower and PTSD-stricken war veteran, and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (McKenzie) illegally living on a nature preserve just outside Portland, Oregon. They’ve made the woods their home, they’ve managed to survive together, and he teaches her how to get through certain scenarios such as the possibility of getting caught and having to run off. She doesn’t know what modern society is like, and he won’t give in to society’s rules anymore to let it happen to his daughter.

One day, they get found out by park rangers and are brought to the authorities. Instead of separating the two (as would happen in a lesser film…and maybe reality, but whatever), Social Services asks the right questions and get the answers that require them to stay together under their terms. (At one point, Tom is offended by the question of whether or not Will abused her in any way. Thankfully, SS is smart enough to realize he hasn’t.)

That’s the first act. The second act continues with Will and Tom living in a house to themselves, meeting community members, getting employment, making friends, etc. Will can’t adjust and won’t allow himself to make much of an effort, whereas Tom makes a very good attempt to belong to this new world she’s now found herself in.

But then, “Leave No Trace” gets even more fascinating when it almost seems it’s getting too predictable. The third act shows Will taking Tom with him to start anew somewhere else, and we see how difficult it is for Will to find comfort and how troubled Tom is when she realizes her father is dragging her down with him.

What makes “Leave No Trace” so special, apart from the excellent performances from both McKenzie and Foster, is that a lot of it plays with minimal dialogue. The acting and the filmmaking are strong enough that we can understand what the characters are going through when they don’t have to project their plight onto each other using a lot of dialogue. I don’t need to be explained why Will feels the need to isolate himself or why Tom would rather try something new than resort to the same thing over and over again, and so on. (Apparently, when Ben Foster signed onto the film, according to IMDb Trivia, he and Granik removed 40% of the dialogue from the script—a brilliant choice.)

The questions of what it means to be a parent, the values of adapting to society, and what it means to care for yourself and for your loved ones are all raised in “Leave No Trace.” And the few answers that we get lead to harsh truths.

Ben Foster is more calm and relaxed than usual, making for an effective performance. But the performance I’m walking away with each time I see “Leave No Trace” is the one by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. I can’t say enough good things about her—she’s just perfect in this role. And I sincerely hope she gets even more work after this.

As with “Lean on Pete,” another film from 2018, “Leave No Trace” isn’t afraid to be harsh and moving one moment and then beautiful and heartbreaking the next. Any film that successfully takes on that bold move is welcome in my theater.