Nate Blake on Why “Leave No Trace” Was Snubbed

The nominations for the 91st Oscars were announced this morning. There were some big surprises, the most welcome of which was a supporting actress nomination for Marina de Tavira from Roma. There were also some big snubs, particularly Ethan Hawke (though First Reformed did get a screenplay nod) and the absence of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in the documentary field. Worst of all though was how the Academy continued the award season trend of ignoring one of 2018’s most deservedly acclaimed films: Leave No Trace.

You can check out my initial review of the Leave No Trace here. Director Debra Granik and her co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini took Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment and made one of the most memorable films in recent memory. Yes, it is a survival story, but it’s also about PTSD and the horrors of war that remain long after veterans return home. When it arrived in theaters last summer, it was met with universal acclaim from critics. It still maintains a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. As awards season approached, however, it became clear that the buzz wasn’t there for this film the way it was for others. It received some attention from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the San Diego Film Critics Society. The latter named Leave No Trace the best picture of the year, and Granik was awarded best director by both groups. From there, its run fell apart. Why?

It’s possible it was hurt by its early release date. I know, Black Panther was released nearly 11 months before Oscar voting for 2018 began, but it received seven nominations this morning. Black Panther is also a box office juggernaut with a major studio behind it that can outspend the independent distributors on Oscar campaigns. Considering how much money and time Disney and Marvel spent trying to get Black Panther in the race, the outcome for them actually looks like failure. Yes, that film was nominated for Best Picture, but all of its other nominations are below the line. No directing, acting or writing nominations. It couldn’t even manage a nod for visual effects. Though it was famously left out of the Best Picture race, The Dark Knight actually received more total nominations a decade ago.

Leave No Trace likely also fell victim to the feel-good syndrome that has always been a problem with the Oscars. Bohemian Rhapsody is so inaccurate that to describe it as loosely based on a true story would be giving it more credit than is due. Also in the feel good list is Green Book, the biggest pile of critically acclaimed cute racism crap to hit theaters in some time. Both films provide inspiring, easy answers to hard topics such as racism, homophobia and AIDS (when they dare to address the issues at all). They are offensively naïve in the simplistic arguments they make. They do, however, leave audiences who don’t know any better feeling pretty great at the end of two hours. On the other hand, Leave No Trace requires its audience to face hard realities without an inspirational coda. There aren’t any easy answers to the issue it explores. The father and daughter at the film’s core will be dealing with the impact of PTSD for the rest of their lives.

Maybe the Academy just isn’t into survival films either. Cast Away was (fairly) only acknowledged for Tom Hanks’ performance and for sound. A few years later, Into the Wild only received nominations for Hal Holbrook and for film editing, even though it had received nominations in other categories from the Screen Actors Guild and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

What is confusing about the absence of Leave No Trace from this year’s Oscars is how much at home it would have been among the many other socially aware films that made the cut. This film, not Green Book with its white savior plot or Bohemian Rhapsody and its safe version of Freddie Mercury, deserves to have its actors, writers, producers and/or director acknowledged along with the great artists behind BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, If Beale Street Could Talk and Vice.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster turned in unforgettable performances, but the most egregious categorical snubs might be in terms of writing and directing. The script resists every temptation to let the dialogue alone move the plot forward. You have to listen actively while also watching every expression or movement in the frame. The words are only half of what the characters are saying. There are moments where some writers would have erred and had the characters speak when their expressions and movements alone could say much more by themselves. The dialogue is also minimal and efficient without being choppy

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Granik has a knack for placing you in a setting that looks and sounds entirely authentic. I’m not a fan of her 2010 film Winter’s Bone, but I admired how fully it placed the viewer in the Ozarks. Granik does similar work here, but with more potent results, by letting us experience the wilderness Will (Foster) and Tom (McKenzie) call home.

Granik and her crew also use sound incredibly well. It is through sound that we understand how Will is so at peace in the forest, and exactly the opposite when he is surrounded by farm equipment.

Maybe, in this completely screwed up society we still live in, what cost Leave No Trace the most is that it was not only directed by a woman, it was also written by women and many of its producers were women. The Academy, with a few of its choices this year, sent a clear and disappointing message: Men can still get rewarded for making average or mediocre films, and they can do so at the expense of the women behind a truly great film.

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