Indie Focus: Journeys abound in ‘Leave No Trace,’ ‘Three Identical Strangers’ and ‘Woman Walks Ahead’


Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

For a recent edition of our podcast The Reel, I was joined by my colleagues Amy Kaufman, Yvonne Villarreal and Jen Yamato to talk about the movies “Set It Up” and “The Kissing Booth” and the emerging revival of the rom-com.

Any serious discussion of the romantic comedy must consider filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, one of the finest practitioners and in many ways architect of the form. As luck would have it, the UCLA Film and Television Archive will soon be kicking off a retrospective called “How Did Lubitsch Do It: Ernst Lubitsch Revisited” that is a fantastic survey of his work, including such flat-out delights as “Trouble in Paradise,” “Ninotchka,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “To Be or Not to Be,”“Heaven Can Wait” and “Design for Living.”


We’ll have more screenings to announce soon, so for info and updates, go to

‘Leave No Trace’

Filmmaker Debra Granik made a tremendous splash with her 2010 film “Winter’s Bone,” which won Sundance, garnered four Oscar nominations and launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence. Granik’s long awaited new film “Leave No Trace,” stars the reliably transcendent Ben Foster and breakthrough newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as a father and daughter who had been trying to live off the grid and are forced to grapple anew with surviving as a part of the world.

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan called the film “fiercely involving in a way we’re not used to, made with sensitivity and honesty,” adding that the storytelling is “unnerving and uncompromising yet completely satisfying.”

I recently spoke to Granik, Foster and Harcourt McKenzie about the movie. Granik said the timing of the movie about a family struggling to stay together wasn’t intentional, but made sense because, “I think in some ways that is the balm of stories, of fables, of tales. It’s the way we’re wired. We have always needed to distill what we’re going through and try to understand it by looking either backwards or forwards. And the hardest is to look in the now.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote: “The director Debra Granik has a gift for cinematic spaces that are vibrantly, palpably alive, and for putting you in places, whether modest homes or the great outdoors, that make you feel as if you’re standing right alongside her characters. … Look, she seems to say as the camera pulls up and away — and cuts the two human travelers down to humble size — look at all this grandeur, all this unspoiled beauty. Don’t you want in?”

At Time, Stephanie Zacharek added: “In case you’re curious, there are no grisly, tooth-and-claw hunting scenes in ‘Leave No Trace,’ and there’s no horror-show sexual-impropriety angle — this movie isn’t about that. Instead, it uses this somewhat extraordinary father-daughter relationship to talk about ordinary things. … The tension between them is both wrenching and beautiful, and that’s key to the movie’s power.

‘Three Identical Strangers’

Directed by Tim Wardle, the documentary “Three Identical Strangers,” is about two men who discovered they were twin brothers when they attended the same college. They soon discovered a third brother and that they were actually triplets and Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman became low-key celebrities, appearing on television programs and in “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The movie explores how that was only the beginning of their story, as what happens after is full of shocking turns.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote: “The tricky, twisty structure of this documentary, a scientific and philosophical inquiry by way of a detective story, suggests a joyous earthquake followed by a series of grim, unsettling aftershocks. It careens wildly from near-comic disbelief to unspeakable tragedy, dragging a trail of intense, contradictory emotions in its wake.”

For an article that will be publishing soon, Amy Kaufman talked to, among others, one of the brothers, Bobby Shafran, who told her about his feelings of what befell them as infants: “It’s beyond anger. We’ve been called ‘subjects.’ We’re victims. There’s a big difference. I don’t want to play off like we’re horribly injured people now as adults — we have families, we have children — we’re relatively normal people. But they treated us like lab rats. Nothing more. And we’re human beings.”

At the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri added: “It’s a startling story, and Wardle tells it well. There’s a jaunty playfulness to the early scenes, which gradually morph into something darker, more introspective and open-ended. … And all along, the director never lets the energy flag, even after he can no longer rely on the wonders of the triplets’ discoveries — when the story, in a sense, becomes about a lot more than them.”

At Rolling Stone, David Fear wrote: “If the movie never quite explores its philosophical ramifications as much as it could have (or should have), it also doesn’t exploit its subjects in a freak show manner. You never forget that there are human beings at the center of this fantastic yarn; the film won’t let you.”

‘Woman Walks Ahead’

Directed by Susanna White from a screenplay by Steven Knight, “Woman Walks Ahead” tells the based-in-reality story of a New York City artist named Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) who traveled to North Dakota to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and becomes an advocate for Native American rights.

Reviewing the movie for The Times, Justin Chang wrote: “‘Woman Walks Ahead’ tries to shine a critical light on some of those [grim] realities — including the devastating Wounded Knee Massacre, which gets a polite end-credits shout-out — and to honor the indigenous men, women and children whose way of life was upended by an insatiable doctrine of American conquest. That particular tragedy continues to this day, as evidenced by the recent protests at Standing Rock, the same reservation where Sitting Bull was killed more than a century prior. Present-day resonance, alas, proves as distant as persuasive history in this timid, well-meaning and ultimately futile movie.”

The Times’ Amy Kaufman spoke to Greyeyes, who said he was attracted to the way that Sitting Bull was written with an unexpected warmth and humor, noting, “that, I think, is the most rare thing that I see in scripts not written by us about our communities and about our heroes. I’ve always looked at humor as a sign of awareness and intelligence. … So all these notes that were in the script told me right away that I was looking at a landmark portrayal.”

At the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote: “It’s all ridiculously romanticized and self-serving. But the performances are so good (Mr. Greyeyes, in particular, is a miracle of intelligence and dignity) and Michael Eley’s vistas, shimmeringly shot in New Mexico, are so stunning, it feels churlish to resist. A single image of distant hilltops, white-capped to suggest the bleached bones of long-gone buffalo, evokes the tragedy of the West more powerfully than any page of impassioned dialogue.

For Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins wrote: “‘Woman Walks Ahead’ is too small and picturesque to hate, and too full of talent to disregard outright. But I have little fondness for its endgame. It makes a great fuss of seeming more sophisticated than the movies of its kind to come before it, when really all it’s here to do is replace old, boring tropes with new, equally boring ones. Weldon and Sitting Bull deserve better. So do we.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.