Film Review: “Leave No Trace”

By Armando Inquig

Bleecker Street

“Leave No Trace” is a compassionate story of a father and daughter living simple lives in the great outdoors, and the circumstances that lead their paths to drift apart.

As simple as that sounds, the film is thought-provoking and powerful, touching on complex issues involving parenting, mental instability, and the alienation of many veterans who choose 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 its premiere 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, living off the grid with his daughter, Tom, played by Thomasin McKenzie in her first major lead role.

The film follows Will and Tom living in a public park outside of Oregon, foraging for food and occasionally traveling by foot to town, primarily to pick up Will’s PTSD medication to sell to other military veterans on the black market. After being spotted in the forest by a jogger, the pair are brought into social services to live conventional lives. They are provided a home in rural Oregon where Will can also work on a tree farm. There, Tom meets a local farm kid who introduces her to his 4-H meetings.

However, it doesn’t take long before they’re back on the road. Will struggles 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 is injured and unconscious, Tom interacts with members of the community, meets kind strangers, borrows a dog from a former army medic, and even offers to pay for the temporary abode where Will is recuperating. She experiences a taste of normalcy and seems to appreciate it. But when Will decides it’s time for them to return to the forest, Tom objects.

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

Foster is fantastic in the film. He has previously received acclaim for many of his intense roles, such as in “3:10 to Yuma” and “Hell or High Water.” He is more subdued here but fully embodies the character. Even with limited background information about Will, we understand that he is trapped within himself and sense his profound devotion and love for his daughter.

Granik’s prior film, the 2010 mystery drama “Winter’s Bone,” featured a breakthrough performance from the then-little-known Jennifer Lawrence, who later became one of the world’s biggest movie stars. This film might just have the same transformative effect on McKenzie. She displays talent beyond her years, skillfully conveying both the innocence and the evolution of her character.

“Leave No Trace” is a quiet and nuanced film that doesn’t succumb to excessive melodrama, even when the narrative reaches peak emotional conflict between the two leads. Nor does it criticize Will and Tom’s way of life. The beautiful cinematography by Michael McDonough, in fact, invitingly reveals spaces in nature that we know exist in our backyard but seldom experience.

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