Film Spotlight: “Leave No Trace”

By Armando Inquig

Bleecker Street

“Leave No Trace” is a compassionate story of father and daughter, living simple lives on the great outdoors, and the circumstances that led their paths to drift apart. Simple as that sounds, the film is thought-provoking and powerful, touching complex issues involving parenting, mental instability and alienation of many veterans who chose isolation as their refuge.

Directed by Debra Granik in her third feature film, “Leave No Trace” is a compelling character study that has been thoroughly embraced by film critics since it premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The story was adapted by Granik and her creative partner Anne Rosellini from the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock.

The film stars Ben Foster as Will, a grizzled War veteran suffering from PTSD and living off the grid with his daughter Tom, played by Thomasin McKenzie in her first major lead role.

Here we see Will and Tom living in a public park outside of Oregon, foraging for food and occasionally travel by foot to town only to pick up Will’s PTSD medication to sell to other military veterans on the black market. After they were seen in the forest by a jogger, the two were brought into social services to live conventional lives. They are provided a home in rural Oregon where Will could also work on the tree farm. Tom also meets a local farm kid who brought her to his 4-H meetings.

But it didn’t take long before their feet are back on the road as Will struggle to adjust to their new home and the social structure provided to them. “We can still think our own thoughts,” Will tells his daughter.

One day, while Will was injured and unconscious, Tom interacts with people in the community, meets kind strangers, was lent a dog by a former army medic, and even volunteered to pay for the temporary abode where Will was recovering. She experience a life of normalcy and seem to appreciate it. When Will decides that its time for them to go back to the forest, Tom objected.

“The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” she says. But this time Will agreed, presaging what may happen next.

Foster is fantastic in the film. In the past, he has received acclaim for many of his big and explosive characters such as in “3:10 to Yuma” and “Hell or High Water.” He is more muted here, yet still fully embody the character. Even with the little background about Will, we know that he is trapped within himself and feel his devotion and love for his daughter.

Granik’s previous film, 2010’s mystery drama “Winter’s Bone,” features a breakthrough performance from then little-known Jennifer Lawrence, who went on to become one of the world’s biggest movie stars. This film just might do the same trick to McKenzie. She is talented beyond her years, skillfully conveying both the innocence and the arc of her character.

“Leave No Trace” is a quiet and nuanced film, and never surrenders to excessive melodrama even when the narrative reached peak emotional conflict between the two leads. Neither does it disparage Will and Tom’s way of life. The beautiful cinematography from Michael McDonough, in fact, invitingly reveal spaces in nature we know exists in our backyard but never experience.

“Leave No Trace” is set to open next month, starting June 29, 2018, in cinemas across the US.