Leave No Trace (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Contains two of the best performances you’ll see this year with a great Ben Foster and the exceptional Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.
Debra Granik’s film is uncompromising in tone and pacing, gorgeously shot and able to show us a unique American story with no judgment, criticism, just compassion and empathy.
The For His Glory dancers. A random moment of humor in an otherwise serious-minded film is one of the best things I’ve seen on screen all year.
There are going to be some people who see the story of Will and Tom unfold and find no compassion or empathy for them whatsoever, because they simply will not or cannot understand what they are going through.
The purposeful pacing of the film will make some viewers feel like this movie is twice as long as it actually is.
The movie heads into its opening with a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I am grasping at straws here. Okay. You saw and disliked Winter’s Bone? This doesn’t have rampaging dinosaurs? You have to drive a little further to find it? Leave No Trace is worth your time.
In 2010, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone not only came from seemingly out of nowhere to earn four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but it also brought us the breakthrough for a young actress named Jennifer Lawrence. Earning her first Oscar nomination, Lawrence’s performance as Ree, a teenage girl forced to find her missing father, with her family facing eviction from their farmhouse, made her a star.
Granik also earned the highest profile of her career, but did not direct a film until 2014’s Stray Dog, a documentary about a Vietnam War veteran with an affinity for small dogs and motorcycles.
Some eight years removed from Ree and her journey through the Ozarks, Granik’s return to fictional storytelling, Leave No Trace, brings to mind Lawrence, Winter’s Bone, and a similar tone and atmosphere in how people among us may exist in worlds we may never fathom or personally understand.
Shot outside and around the state of Oregon, Granik explores the story of a father and teenage daughter living off the grid, in a hidden, remote, portion of public park land near Portland. Will (Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are peacefully, secretly, living their lives, storing away essentials in hidden compartments, surviving on the food sources around them, and making use of nature in all ways imaginable.
Will is a military veteran, battling PTSD, and struggling with the bustle of the conventional world just outside of his reach. Tom, ever dutiful, knows no other life than the one she shares with her father. When things run low, they scrape together what little money they can and go to the city to buy groceries. To get by with a little extra, Will sells his prescription medication to another cluster of campers in the park. In small doses Will is alright, but in isolation, he feels comfortable and at ease.
Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough, who also shot Granik’s Down to the Bone along with Winter’s Bone, are equally observational and intimate in placing us into the world Will and Tom have created for themselves. When that existence is unexpectedly disrupted, the movie shifts gears and becomes a story of adaptation and moment-to-moment and day-to-day survival within a four-wall setting. Will needs to be free of any constraints, and Tom begins to question what is truly best for the family.
Leave No Trace is a slow burn of a film, paced to mirror and reflect the almost timeless existence Will and Tom share in their hidden corner of the world. Foster is powerful in a quiet, searing performance, who says very little but shows us how fragile he is when forced to exist in the “real world.”
Like Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Granik finds something truly special in Harcourt McKenzie, who increasingly takes more and more of the movie on her shoulders and delivers one of the finest performances of 2018. Wise beyond her years, with pure and natural chemistry with Foster, the 17-year-old New Zealand actress is unwavering in conveying her emotions in understanding her father, rationalizing what’s happening to her family, and developing a voice to stand on her own.
Together, Foster and Harcourt McKenzie are predominantly the featured players, though Winter’s Bone co-star Dale Dickey arrives late in the film as a calming, curious, but reassuring presence in Tom’s life. Her moments add a layer of tenderness the film struggles at times to achieve.
Occasionally, Leave No Trace falls into repetitiveness and its deliberate pace can feel occasionally inert. Fortunately, our interest in the lives of Will and Tom carry us forward, but for some, this will be a grind to sit through.
Gorgeously shot, meticulously plotted, Granik’s newest film has been something I have thought about a lot in the days since I first saw it. Never judgmental, Granik, who co-wrote the script with long-time collaborator and producer Anne Rosellini, finds unending empathy and concern for her characters. She wants the best for them, like we do, and, as a director and storyteller, we feel her searching for positive things, just like Will and Tom are attempting to do.
As father and daughter reach something of an inevitable impasse, the lingering, imperfect beauty of a story like Leave No Trace reminds us that love can not only protect us and keep us safe, but also, when necessary, provide us the strength to stand on our own and find our voice.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Dana Millican, Dale Dickey, David Pittman, Spencer S. Haley.
Director: Debra Granik
Written by: Debra Granik. Anne Rosellini
Based on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Bleecker Street Media