In 2010, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, a gritty film about an Ozark teen struggling to raise her younger siblings after their father disappears, launched Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.
The then-20-year-old actress from Indian Hills, Kentucky, was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, and soon became one of the most influential voices in Hollywood.
Eight years later, Granik's Leave No Trace — her first feature since Winter's Bone — promises to do the same for its young star, Thomasin McKenzie, whose role as a young girl living off the grid with her Army veteran father (Ben Foster) is already getting major critical acclaim.
The 18-year-old from New Zealand will next star in Netflix's The King alongside Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, and is currently filming a role in Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit.
Being great in a Granik-directed film is about the only thing the two actresses have in common, and yet nearly every review and interview about the film compares them, a trend that is starting to wear on the director.
"Some paunchy little grizzled dude is not going to be compared — this isn’t a direct comparison to Jen and Thom, but two men who are very different are not going to be compared to each other," Granik said in an interview with Refinery29, adding, "That comparison to me is a salivating form of a long strand drool of greed in our culture. The insidious greed of panting ‘Is it going to happen?' It’s just very gross."
On the one hand, it's a tempting analogy to make. Both roles are weightier than those usually granted to young actresses, and showcase McKenzie and Lawrence's range as performers. But there's still an undercurrent of sexism there, as if a young actress can only be talked about in relation to another. It suggests, implicitly, that there's only room for one ingenue at the top.
That message is what worries Granik, who fears that McKenzie might fall prey to the Hollywood machine geared towards marketing young women as objects of sexual desire.
"People who are really invested in making money with Thom, or off her — I hope they don’t think they have to really sexualize her and parade her around in a lot of gowns," she said. "That would be devastating. The only way they know to get your interest in a female is to be like ‘Hey, she’s sexy, too!’’ I hope people use restraint and look out for Thom’s interest, and that she’s sort of herself."
Still, Granik says she's proud of being thought of as a director who cares about fostering young talent, and hopes to continue to do so with future projects. "I would love to be in service to being able to help diversify who is brought into the culture-making sphere of getting to help tell stories," she said. "It thrills me."
"In social realist thinking, there’s a philosophy that in every 50 people, at least one person is going to be extremely articulate, or extremely expressive, or [can channel] some of their life experience and are able to tell you about it, make another person feel it," she said. "I can never work with stars because they are taken into a lifestyle that prevents them from living in an ordinary way."
It's that focus on social realist films, works that tells stories about the lives of ordinary Americans, many living under the poverty line, that Granik points to when asked about the eight-year gap between Winter's Bone and Leave No Trace.
"I've learned that if there’s a word that’s going to be shunned, and people are going to wither at the level of green-lighting things, it’s the idea of ‘poor.’ Someone can be mercilessly harmed — that’s considered exciting. If someone’s poor, that’s considered heavy," she said. " I deal with that throughout the subject matters that I’m attracted to. Frequently, people are of very limited financial resources. And life is difficult in some of their existences, but I’m still very attracted to how they’re going to survive nonetheless. They seem worthy to me, and [then] I sort of get the sad face, or the emoji where the eyebrows are baffled, like ‘Why?’"
Ultimately though, Granik says this is a time to be optimistic about the growing opportunities for women in film, crediting Time's Up with bringing class into the equation.
"I think there’s going to be a time now where [women will no longer] have to reveal some devastating anecdotes about feeling undermined, or not supported," she said. "We had to be open about that, [and we have to] cite it when it happens, but when it doesn’t happen we have to be excited too, because that’s change."
"There was no behavior that I needed to emulate that had been more classically associated with someone who’s supposed to be listened to," she said of working on Leave No Trace. "I felt that this crew was rooting for this film, and I felt this excellent support as a woman director."