Debra Granik: Home Is Where You Make It
In Upstate New York, a mother of two children is overwhelmed by the prospect of building a second bathroom and running out of spending money after she blew it on cocaine from her dealer. But she keeps her head up working retail to provide for her family, and maybe soon she’ll be able to afford that pet snake her son wants.
In the backwoods in the Ozarks of Missouri, a young woman is taking on the role of mother for her younger brother and sister, because their real mother is long gone mentally from the medications she’s taking. Their timber won’t pay the rent much longer, so she’s off to find out why her father went missing — but amid all the imposing familiar faces she runs across, she never forgets the ones she’s putting her life on the line for.
Just outside Portland, Oregon, an Iraq war veteran is raising his teenage daughter away from any other authorities — their corner of the forest is wide open and isolated enough for them to cook, set up camp, and reminisce about the girl’s mother. This is a broken man who would do anything for his daughter, but as authorities finally discover them and force both into a more socially accepted definition of “home,” he’s starting to realize she’ll be doing some of the parenting herself soon.
These three are broken but devoted, lost but always searching, and they’re the protagonists of a quietly political, chilly yet achingly heartfelt filmography. It’s been 14 years between Down to the Bone, Winter’s Bone, and Leave No Trace, but writer and director Debra Granik has made each of her all-too-rare cinematic appearances count. This is a filmmaker who cherishes each of her character’s inner lives, and as we follow them along through their daily struggles, so do we. But not once does she lose sight of the poverty, capitalistic exploitation, and well-meaning but ultimately meaningless social systems that put them in their predicaments.
You see this in the daily grind of Irene (Vera Farmiga), the cool and considerate, but deeply troubled protagonist of Down to the Bone. She’s surrounded by her energetic kids, a loving husband who’s never quite too clingy, and signs across her retail work space reminding her, “We care.” But looking past the facade of the American dream this woman should be living, it becomes clear that this is no happy camper. She’s an addict and she knows it, but too few others do. After going through the motions at work and slowly losing sexual interest in her spouse, Irene makes some long overdue meaningful connections at a retreat meant to help people like her overcome their cravings. But as the warmly welcoming nurse Bob (Hugh Dillon) warns her, she might not want to return to her designated “home” after all that, In his experience, not all addicts can successfully do that.
Indeed, in Granik’s films, “home” isn’t just where the heart is — it’s a cry for help. In Winter’s Bone, Ree, played with endearingly humble determination by a pre-stardom Jennifer Lawrence, knows that she doesn’t have the reliably supportive family life she wants deep down. Her mother is baked beyond the point of even being able to vocalize, but Ree still takes her out to the forest to ask for advice she’ll never receive. As the most inherently genre-centric of Granik’s films, Winter’s Bone mines its noir trappings for an unbearable sadness — one focused on Ree’s search not just for her absentee father, but for the childhood that was taken from her. This is a begrudgingly independent young woman who has learned how to cook, shoot a gun, and search for employment, however aimlessly. When she tells her siblings, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” she means it. Parenting has become her role in life, one she didn’t ask for but would have even less direction without.
It’s a small miracle, then, that Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) of Leave No Trace has her father Will (Ben Foster) by her side. But that miracle comes with a major caveat — he’ll never be able to provide her a home with the stability and sense of community her peers are so used to. For Will, human connections are just a reminder of the ones he lost to war. In fact, he still holds onto a newspaper clipping that reads “a unit stalked by suicide, trying to save itself.” Tom is fine with their unusual definition of a “home,” much to the surprise of well-meaning social service officials, but she’s no blind follower of her father. Throughout the film, Tom proves to be more open to strangers, warming up to devotional dancers at church and making friends with a boy her age who enjoys his 4-H club and dreams of building his own tiny home. But in Will’s eyes, they’ll only ever be happy in an environment no one else is forcing them to conform to. “Did you even try?” Tom asks as they leave the farm to which they’ve been relocated. She aims for a sense of community Will’s experiences have taught him to fear — one of many generational gaps present in Granik’s filmography.
In the short making-of documentary for “Leave No Trace,” Granik admits, “I’m drawn to stories where people are not born into any kind of entitlement and privilege.” Her characters live under institutions that aren’t equipped to handle their very personal problems, so they’re forced to find an understanding “home” of their own. Irene of Down to the Bone works efficiently and patiently with even the most tasking of customers (an older man with years’ worth of coupons stands out as one of Granik’s many authentically quirky one-scene characters), but the cracks start to show when she finally begins her sobriety. She loses her job after violating its no drugs policy, and only finds an understanding social circle in other addicts. She cleans houses with Lucy (Caridad De La Luz) and starts seeing Bob, who, in spite of the dangerous lifestyle he puts her back in contact with, empathizes with her inner struggle to a degree her husband can’t quite reach.
Meanwhile, the protagonists of Granik’s next two features are constantly searching for a community that can define them. Tom of Leave No Trace would like to settle down in a way her father can’t even fathom, and you can see the twinkle in her eye when she finally starts making friends with locals at a trailer park they stay in near the film’s end. Ree of Winter’s Bone is even more desperate to escape the home she’s been left to rot in, surrounded by several seedy relatives who leave her out of the loop of the meth production her father was involved in. Her addict uncle Teardop (John Hawkes) inquires at one point if Ree has gotten hooked on drugs herself, given her family history. And given the fact that she later takes painkillers to ease the bruises from a beating, he ends up being eerily onto something. Yet Ree is searching constantly for a better life — a more secure and economically stable one for her siblings — despite her limited knowledge of where to find it. In a heartbreaking conversation with an Army recruiter, it becomes clear that she lacks much context for her goals — the recruiter asks her for three other reasons she’s joining besides the money, as if that’s not a sufficiently overbearing anxiety in her life.
The people of Granik’s economically distraught communities may consistently lack security, but they’re still able to find some semblance of peace in their environments. Perhaps the most fascinating, often moving element of Granik’s filmography is the overt presence of animals as both a comfort and a reminder. A pet ferret gives one homeowner in Winter’s Bone as intriguing a backstory as several lines of exposition might in a wordier script, because this is a film where people in Ree’s economic squalor often must hunt to provide dinners for their families. It sets the stage for a community that can devour its loved ones as soon as it embraces them. In Down to the Bone, once Irene is finally able to afford a pet snake for her son, it doubles as a rude awakening for the dangerous line she walks. In one scene, the snake is wrapped around her neck like a noose, before her son removes it as a reminder of the hope he provides her.
Granik even weaves a heartwarming unity between animals and people from many walks of life in Stray Dog, her 2014 documentary. The film is immersive in a similarly slow-building way as her features. There’s no traditional narration or framing device here, but rather uncut sequences of Vietnam veteran Ronnie Hall’s daily experiences with PTSD, his loyal community of bikers and fellow veterans, and his loving wife Alicia who sticks with him in spite of some legal and linguistic road blocks. In showing us Ronnie’s unique sense of loneliness, one Ronnie admits can only really be felt by those who were there to dehumanize themselves and others during the war, Granik lightens the mood with another community — that of the small dogs he cares for. Ronnie finds new ways to connect to his friends and express how much he misses his wife when his dogs are around. It’s one of the most uplifting examples of Granik’s belief that even the most broken people can be as open with each other as a tail-wagging dog with its owner.
But it’s Leave No Trace that takes Granik’s environmentalist undertones into the forefront. Early in the film, Tom finds a necklace shaped like a seahorse, which she holds onto from then on. According to a book she reads, “seahorses pair for life. They find each other first thing in the morning.” The metaphor starts as a comforting reminder of the emotional security Tom has with her father, but it soon becomes clear that she’s going to need other animals in her ecosystem to live her fullest life. Will genuinely cares for Tom’s well-being, even teaching her to read at a faster pace than many of her peers, but as a social service agent points out, “school is about social skills too, not just intellectual ones.” Tom befriends a runaway rabbit and a trucker’s dog before reaching her final home, where a beekeeper shows her that the potentially lethal insects are surprisingly friendly. When Tom passes this information onto Will, it’s her ultimatum to him — she shows him to “feel the warmth of the hive,” in attempt to make him embrace the community that’s welcoming them. Though he still can’t reach her level, it remains the kind of movingly understated gesture that Granik’s films revel in.
Even with only three feature films and a documentary to her name, Debra Granik has made a subtly powerful impact on indie cinema. Few modern filmmakers are so uncompromisingly honest about their political motivations. In her still-young filmography, Granik has pulled no punches against unchecked capitalism and the myriad of ways it leaves youth, addicts and veterans in the dust. But amid the chilly, greyscale worlds she so masterfully paints, Granik never loses sight of the warmth and humanity present in even America’s darkest corners. Her characters prove that the tiniest gesture can make the biggest difference in someone’s life. It’s enough to make one hope both for more films from this essential voice, and more of the compassionate moments she has such a powerful belief in.