‘Leave No Trace’ Leaves a Mark

by Warren Cantrell on July 16, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

A quiet, fragile movie about a family balancing on a knife’s edge, Leave No Trace finds a way to give expression and voice to the invisible bonds that tether loved ones to each other. A story about grief, loss, family, and compromise, the film manages to visit several different thematic camps by way of a very simple, linear story.

When the audience meets Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), they are working to square away their campsite just as any family might during a weekend getaway. Yet within a minute or two, it becomes clear that the pair aren’t camping, per se, but living a rogue’s existence off the grid. Piles of empty propane tanks and speed-drills to practice evasion and concealment speak to a small family that is intentionally lost, and has little interest in being found. And while the two of them make sporadic trips into nearby Portland, OR to get supplies after hawking Will’s V.A.-provided meds, the woods and each other largely sustain them.

Yet the forest does not belong to this small family, and when cops raid the campsite, Will and Tom fall into the social services spin-cycle. Well-meaning as these case workers are, and as receptive as the young Tom is to increased social interactions and mod-cons, her dad can’t seem to adjust. Whatever happened to Will during his time in the service wounded him irrevocably, and while others in his position may resort to alcohol or drugs, it’s the woods that bring Will peace. In the quiet tranquility of the forest, his demons are kept at bay (though they’re not forgotten), and Tom seems to understand that: making due as best she can.

Tom loves her father, after all, that much is clear. And Will is a devoted, affectionate dad despite his severe PTSD, and always manages to not just provide for Tom, but to put her needs above all others. The tragedy is that for Will to continue to do so, he’ll have to inevitably choose between what he loves, and what is keeping him alive. Tom needs more than the woods can provide, and whether it is physically or emotionally, she’s aging out of the fragile existence that keeps Will’s head above water. It’s a struggle that Tom understands despite her years, and how this reality sets in over the course of a few weeks forms the backbones of Leave No Trace.

Director and co-writer Debra Granik deals with some very volatile material here: the thematic equivalent of nitro glycerin. Using Will’s wartime PTSD as the hinge for this story’s wilderness set-up threatens to push the material into First Blood territory, yet the script avoids all the obvious clichés, and centers instead on the interpersonal relationship between father and daughter. Their bond is what sells this story, and the minimalist approach that Granik employs to bring this out is the reason that Leave No Trace works as well as it does.

There are no showy moments, no tearful proclamations: not even much of a score to tell the audience how to feel. When music does finally make an appearance in the third act, it’s almost as an afterthought, like a shrugging gesture from a movie that assumes the audience is up to speed by that point. This is a safe assumption, too, because Granik employs two very dynamic weapons in her assault on the audience’s emotions in Foster and McKenzie, both of whom turn in world-class performances.

Subtle body language, silent stares, and emotional tip-toeing tells the audience everything they need to know about this father and daughter tandem. And while the script does a magnificent job drawing this out, none of it works without the layered performances offered up by the leads, who feel familiar and lived-in after just a handful of minutes on-screen. Comparisons between McKenzie and Granik’s previous Winter’s Bone break-out star, Jennifer Lawrence, are inevitable, and there is something to them. Both films succeed because of the stunning work of a mostly unknown actress that seems destined for bigger and better things, and like Lawrence, McKenzie displays an on-screen IQ that outstrips her age (the latter woman just turned 18).

Yet McKenzie’s performance is unique and all her own, and if there’s any deep Winter’s Bone comparisons to be made, it seems to be that Granik has an eye for remarkable, untapped talent. The director also knows how to use light and color to speak to the thematic undertones of her story, with the lush, green forests of the Pacific Northwest standing in stark contrast to the naked greys, whites, and flat yellows of civilization. It’s enough to clue the audience into what’s going on beneath the surface of these characters, which all works within a wonderful mélange to speak volumes about who these people are with few words spoken.

Now playing, Leave No Trace joins a desperately, regrettably long list of 21st century films that address the cost almost two decades of uninterrupted war is having on our society. Unassuming, anti-dramatic, and genuine to the bone, Leave No Trace tells its story at almost a whisper. This can make it a challenging viewing experience at times, but if one leans in to listen, they will find the extra effort well worth the exertion.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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