When we talk about realism, we talk about it mostly in terms of the banal. The can rolling down the hill, desperate impatience in waiting rooms and lines, offhand gestures and flat lighting—those details that we take to signify everyday life as it is lived. The filmmaker Debra Granik is often described (and on occasion has self-described) as a “social realist.” And it is true that Granik does hew to a certain realist tradition; her films are often about survival on the edge of systems. This is true of the father and daughter who quite literally live on the edge by choosing to live in the woods in Granik’s latest film, Leave No Trace (2018), but also the residents of the RV park in her documentary Stray Dog (2015), who struggle to pay rent or see dentists. But what marks Granik as a realist is not so much her interest in survival but her interest in the process of survival. Her films document the minute details of experience that are usually left out in service of a plot: the way Ree slices potatoes directly into the pan in Winter’s Bone (2010), or the sound that rain and sleet make as they hit leaves in Leave No Trace. This attention to the intricacies of experience is borne of a careful research ethic—Granik has stated in many interviews that she spends years doing research for each of her films, even taking the time, for instance, to interview and talk with truck drivers before writing a short scene in Leave No Trace where one truck driver offers the primary characters a lift. And yet to say that Granik’s films depict reality is to leave out the fullness of experience they actually depict.
What she’s actually interested in are the places where our idea of what life is begins to disintegrate and become something else, the marginal space that exists between the realist and the surreal where our experience becomes something strange to us. For instance, there is a scene in Leave No Trace where the father and daughter (played by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie respectively) camp out in the freezing forest, which on one level demonstrates Granik’s attention to the practical realities of surviving in the wild: McKenzie’s character begs to sit down; her hands grow cold and stiffen as her father hurriedly breaks branches and clips fronds in order to construct some kind of shelter, placing leaves inside her jacket for insulation. But when watching the scene we don’t register it just as a realist depiction of survival in the forest, but as a place where reality breaks down and becomes brutal and horrifying: The light in the scene is intensely blue, turning the patterned green leaves into something kaleidoscopic, a vision only broken up by the white of their breath in the air (the cinematography is by Granik’s longtime collaborator Michael McDonough). Granik and editor Jane Rizzo cut quickly between shots here—Foster grabbing a bundle of sticks, the harsh noise of his feet on the frozen ground, and his knife hacking at the branches. The abrupt cutting and his abrupt movements are contrasted with McKenzie’s slow, almost mechanical attempts to collect fronds. Music seeps in, long dissonant chords, and the editing is no longer abrupt but rather elliptical: Foster constructing the shelter, to him picking his daughter up, to placing the glistening leaves into her jacket.
As the two lie down, McKenzie’s Tom asks him if they’re going to freeze to death in their sleep, a flashlight illuminating her face. When he says no, she asks him how he knows that, with the camera close on her pale blue face. But the sequence then ends on her father’s face, the white light of the flashlight strong on him as he looks up into the dark. Granik by this point heightens the intensity of the sequence so that it verges on the expressionistic—the blue color, the jagged cutting, and the clinical white light amidst the dark. It captures reality not as it is lived but as it is felt. The motions of everyday life give way to the moments where our experience of reality is not so banal, not dependent on the temporal, but fragmented instead. In this scene Granik captures those moments of terror so acutely that it appears the material the world is built out of seems to have become something else entirely.
But her films also reveal those places where reality shifts not on the basis of terror but on the basis of something akin to mystical experience. Later in Leave No Trace, Tom helps a neighbor with beekeeping. The light is warm and dappled; Granik cuts close on the hive as a section of it is pulled up, the yellow of the bees revealed by the light, a faint humming sound emerging alongside them. The woman places the bees in Tom’s hands as the camera moves from a medium shot to focus more on Tom, now perfectly quiet except for the noise of the bees. Later she shows the hive to her father, instructing him to close his eyes, then removing her protective suit. When he opens his eyes, he smiles—and the film cuts close to her face, serene, surrounded by wisps of hair, then moves down to her fingers, crawling with bees. Reality gives way once more, but into an image not terrifying but quietly ethereal and ineffable—a moment where the material of reality shifts not to produce a horrifying emptiness but instead a vivid mystery.
Granik has cited influences such as filmmakers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh—but also, tellingly, the work of classical Hollywood directors like King Vidor and William Wyler. She notes in one interview that the work of these classical Hollywood directors is “sometimes more cumbersome or melodramatic than European social realism, because they are emerging from the studio system.” Granik’s work is not cumbersome, not having emerging from a system that functions in the same way as Hollywood did in the ’40s. And while her work is not melodramatic in the way we recognize melodrama in classical Hollywood film—as something explicitly constructed in the narrative itself—Granik’s films do reveal how the heightened and unreal sensations of the melodramatic form exist even in the banalities of daily life. Realism expands under her watch to encompass the unreal, the horrifying, and the fantastic—not life as it is seen, or even typically photographed, but rather how it is experienced.