When Debra Granik’s touching and truthful Leave No Trace premiered at the Sundance Film Festival one year ago today, a few writers and media outlets began loudly asking a leading question: Was Thomasin McKenzie, the film’s largely unknown 17-year-old star, “the next Jennifer Lawrence?” It was a reductive and imperfect comparison, not to mention an impossibly high bar to set for any young actor, but you could understand why folks were asking. Lawrence, after all, had made her big breakthrough in Granik’s previous drama, Winter’s Bone, when she was just a hair older than McKenzie, playing a not-so-different character: a tough teenage girl living on the cultural fringe, worrying about her father and wondering about a world beyond the boundaries of her isolated existence.
Unlikely though it may seem, McKenzie’s even more understated, more free of affectation, than Lawrence was. She plays Tom, who lives with her dad, military veteran Will (Ben Foster), in a large public park outside of Portland—that is, until the pair’s illegal encampment is discovered by the park rangers, and the two are dragged back into civilization. A Kiwi actor whose most prominent previous role was probably a stint on the New Zealand daily soap Shortland Street, McKenzie delivers the kind of naturalistic, unstudied performance whose strings don’t show—she never seems to be acting, which of course is untrue, given how much Leave No Trace actually asks of her. As Tom begins to wonder if being part of a society wouldn’t be so bad after all, McKenzie quietly but forcefully internalizes the film’s conflicts: independence versus belonging, autonomy versus community, her own needs versus those of her traumatized, introverted father. Her work turns on a realization so gradual it only becomes fully clear in the film’s devastating final minutes.
J-Law, of course, would end up scoring her first Best Actress nomination for Winter’s Bone. In that respect, at least, McKenzie deserves to follow in her footsteps. But her name isn’t especially likely to be called on Tuesday, when the Best Actress candidates, along with the rest of the Oscar nominations, are announced—and not just because McKenzie’s work, which rarely announces its brilliance, doesn’t really fit the mold of what Academy voters generally honor. As it turns out, the film’s distributor, Bleecker Street, isn’t even campaigning for Best Actress. They’ve decided, instead, to push McKenzie for Best Supporting Actress, even though she appears in nearly every scene of Leave No Trace.
“Category fraud” is the expression often used for this kind of award-season con. It describes the practice of mischaracterizing a lead performance as a supporting one. (Technically, it can go the other way, too, as when Anthony Hopkins scored a Best Actor nod for his 16 minutes of screen time in Silence Of The Lambs. But that’s much less common.) It’s usually the studio that makes this call, in a blatant attempt to add to a film’s nomination count or smuggle a performer into a less competitive race. Academy members aren’t forced to stick actors in the categories for which they’re campaigning—they resisted in 2009, for example, when Kate Winslet ended up winning Best Actress for The Reader, even though The Weinstein Company insisted it was a supporting performance. But they usually defer to the studio, resulting in head-scratchers like Rooney Mara getting nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Carol, despite having more screentime than Cate Blanchett, or Ethan Hawke showing up in the supporting category for Training Day, as though he were someone less a lead than his Oscar-winning costar, Denzel Washington.
This year, most of the talk of category fraud has centered on Yorgos Lanthimos’ darkly comic The Favourite, and how Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz have been relegated to the Supporting Actress race, despite occupying roles no less prominent than the one that’s made Olivia Colman a Best Actress contender. It’s a case where category placement is genuinely tricky—as far as this critic is concerned, all three are leads—but also a perfect example of why category fraud happens: Studios will do it to prevent vote-splitting and get two performers of the same gender nominated by pushing them into different categories. Other times, it’s a way for actors who have big years to avoid competing with themselves. Jamie Foxx, for example, probably insisted on being pushed for Supporting Actor in Collateral, even though he’s clearly that’s film lead, so as not to steal votes from his work in Ray.
There’s also the matter of star power, which counts more than you might think. One of my least favorite cases of category fraud was Casey Affleck getting nominated for Supporting Actor for his superbly craven (and clearly leading) performance in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, even though his much more famous costar, Brad Pitt, is plainly in the subordinate role. Some version of that is probably playing out with Leave No Trace’s campaign. Relative to his costar, Ben Foster is a movie star, which may be why they’re running him as the lead. It can be harder, in general, for relative unknowns to break into Best Actor or Best Actress. Though the dichotomy is nowhere near as extreme as it used to be, the Academy has often treated the supporting categories as a good place to honor not just character actors but also promising up-and-comers; recent winners that fit this bill include Alicia Vikander and Lupita Nyong’o.
Nonetheless, calling McKenzie’s performance “supporting” is still egregiously misleading—it distorts the very notion of a hierarchy of roles in drama. It’s not just that, scene for scene, McKenzie’s in more of the film than Foster. It’s that this is Tom’s story more than it is Will’s. Though built on a powerful father-daughter relationship, Leave No Trace subtly privileges the daughter’s perspective. There aren’t many scenes that unfold solely from Will’s point-of-view—with only a couple of exceptions, Foster shares his screentime with McKenzie, his performance largely defined by the interaction between the two. By contrast, Granik gives us lots of scenes with just Tom—little peeks into the new life she’s trying to build—or ones that pair her off with the various strangers that drift into her orbit. That’s because Leave No Trace is really about her journey. While Will remains static in his introversion, Tom changes—the film, at its core, is about her slowly connecting to a world from which she’s been long removed. McKenzie, then, is the only actor who has a full arc to play.
None of which should diminish Foster’s work, which is just as necessary, as integral, to Leave No Trace. In my review of the film last summer, I wrote that “One wonders, at times, if it’s too distant a performance: However accurately Foster has captured the emotional remove of someone rocked by trauma, his Will remains a ghost, difficult to connect to in any meaningful way.” On further reflection, though, that’s actually a big part of what makes Foster’s turn here such an exemplary supporting performance. “We should try to adapt,” Tom tells Will when he begins to reject the new life that’s arranged for them on a farm outside of the city. But as someone who can’t adapt, whose PTSD has made it impossible for him to change, Will is the constant against which Tom reacts. When we see her reaching out for connection—for a sense of community—we understand that it’s at least partially a rebellion against the quarantine her father has arranged for them. By extension, Foster’s total remove works perfectly as a foil for McKenzie’s emotional growth spurt; his monolithic shell shock throws the nuances of her slow-motion blossoming into sharper relief.
Truthfully, there’s a very good chance that neither Foster nor McKenzie get nominated, even in the “wrong” categories. They’re just too restrained and subtle—the Academy, generally speaking, goes for broader dramatic work and more ostentatious transformations. If they did manage to squeeze in, that would probably best be seen as a victory, given that the greatest function that the Oscars serve is pointing people towards movies they may not have seen. In other words, it’d be nice if more viewers found Leave No Trace, regardless of how voters classify its two tremendous performances. Still, wouldn’t it be so typically Oscar to misconstrue one of the year’s most effective, affecting acting showcases?