Good movies can thrill, and they can inform.
“Leave No Trace” and “Three Identical Strangers” are two new releases which are earning high praise from moviegoers who have seen them.
I’m joining in the celebration. I will write positively about the movies, but I won’t reveal too much information. I want you to see both of them with their surprises intact.
“Leave No Trace” draws its title from the seven principles of outdoor camping and responsible conservation, especially “plan ahead and prepare.”
In a spectacular, lush green forest, a father and his young daughter live in isolation. Will and Tom (the child’s name) illegally dwell in the misty woods in a preserve near Portland, Oregon. They eat mushrooms and berries, capture rainwater to drink, and he educates her, including with some books they have.
They do trek to Portland because Will, superbly played by Ben Foster, is a veteran of the American military and of a war in an unnamed country. He needs some services from the Veterans Administration. Their goal is to get in the city and get out quickly. Will, who smolders with a silent rage, visits the VA for his prescription medicine, which he does not use. He sells the pills so he can buy food.
Will and Tom’s idyll is shattered after his daughter makes a slight mistake resulting in her being seen by another person in the woods. Soon, she and her father are arrested by some police officers accompanied by a social worker. They are charged with misdemeanor trespassing.
What happens next is a switch from the visual power of the forest to the restrictive power of society and bureaucracy. Father and daughter are given aptitude tests and are provided with a small wood frame house in which to live. Will hides the television in a closet. The social worker prepares Tom for attending school. Will gets a job at a Christmas tree farm. Their long-established routines are shattered.
Director Debra Granik and her co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini tell their story without intruding on the lives of the characters. Scenes unfold quietly. The audience will occasionally draw meaning from simple, tell-tale looks.
Tom, wonderfully played by Thomasin McKenzie, meets a boy her age who lives on a nearby farm. He owns a rabbit, which fascinates her. She learns to ride a bicycle. Slowly, she realizes that she likes this new world. Will does not. He knows society. He’s lived in it. He becomes stressed beyond what he can endure. He wants out and a return to the forest. What happens is for you to discover.
What is best for Will’s daughter? What about his needs? Whose life is paramount? His or hers?
Granik, who also directed the excellent “Winter’s Bone,” cautiously guides us to a resolution. Both the cinematography by Michael McDonough and the film editing by Jane Rizzo are outstanding.
“Leave No Trace” is remarkable and compelling.
In “Three Identical Strangers,” a young man walks onto a small college campus for his freshman year. No one should know him, but almost everybody does.
Is the movie a psychological thriller? No, it’s a true-life tale, a documentary by Tom Wardle that will absolutely jolt you. It should enrage you, as well. As you watch, the film practically becomes a horror story.
It turns out that the college student has a twin brother he never knew about. We soon learn he has another brother. He’s one of triplets, separated at birth by an upscale adoption agency in New York City. One of the babies went to a wealthy family, one found love with a middle-class family, and the other was placed with a low-income family.
Does this sound like a an experiment?
The three young men, aged 19, become media sensations. They look alike, they talk alike, they walk alike, they even sit alike. They smoke the same brand of cigarettes. They even like the same music. They are truly reunited, but their parents have questions for the adoption agency.
Meanwhile, television talk shows beckon, including Phil Donahue and Tom Brokaw. The guys are the toast of the town. The 1980s are their oyster.
After graduating from college, they glide into comfortable lives. Newspapers and magazines chronicle their every move. They open a club. It’s called Triplets. It’s a smash hit. New York City loves them.
Enter darkness. Bobby, David and Eddy have the world at their feet. But something is wrong. Director Wardle uses footage from the young men’s lives. He’s also created reenactments of key moments. He builds his story like a master suspense writer.
He has strong and riveting new interviews with two of the three now middle-aged men. The tonal shift from exuberance to sorrow is handled with exceptional care. Wardle really is sharing a mystery.
Without giving away anything, there are disclosures that all was not right with the lives of the triplets. A tragedy occurs. We learn that bad things were done by supposedly well-meaning people.
How rich is rich enough to control the destiny of babies? How connected in politics means you can get away with studying a child like a lab rat? How high should your social status be to participate in something truly twisted?
After seeing the extraordinary “Three Identical Strangers,” my first thought was: How could anybody do this to children?
The movie is truly revelatory.
Michael Calleri reviews films for Night & Day. Contact him at email@example.com.