The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.
It is rare when a filmmaker can make a product that leaves you speechless yet fill your mind with countless emotions ranging from empathy to despair to gratitude, happiness and complete tranquility. Debra Granik (director of Winter’s Bone) does exactly that with Leave No Trace. Based on the novel My Abandonment, by Peter Rock, the film follows the uncompromising Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) as they share a life secluded from the world, living in a public forest/park in Oregon. When an honest mistake threatens to disrupt their livelihood, the father-daughter duo is forced to abide by civilization’s rules and live normally according to social services.
The appeal of Granik’s character film comes from its atmospheric brilliance that tells a story in itself. From the shots of glistening spider webs to the sun peaking through the bright green foliage of the surrounding wet trees, Leave No Trace acknowledges nature’s allure and reminds the audience to appreciate the beauty of everyday living. And this is all reflected in Will and Tom doing so, as well. The film opens up as an intimate, non-verbal interaction between the two as they carry on with their routine: preparing food, making fires, and even playing chess. And their heartwarming conversations establish the care and love they feel for one another that is protective and sincere.
As the film progresses, the audience is provided more detail into why the family prefers the outdoors. For one, Will is an army veteran suffering from PTSD. His social anxiety and preference for isolation is unwavering even when provided good living conditions. Ben Foster brilliantly portrays this as he embodies the realism of stress and internal struggle that feels natural and profound. He isn’t just afraid of being taken from his serenity, he’s driven by his need to maintain it. Tom, though reluctant at first, is the opposite- slowly opening up to the idea of “normal living” as her curiosity for the world gets the best of her throughout the film. Thomasin McKenzie was the perfect casting choice to depict such emotions. Her performance is captivating because it comes from a place of sensitivity and reservation when necessary. But when the highly emotional scenes arrive, she convincingly gives her all in every moment that it truly steals your heart!
Granik’s third feature film is one of the best in a year filled with decent to great storytelling across all genres. But what separates this film from the others is the attention to detail for its characters through excellent camerawork and background activity that opens its audience up to the world in which the main characters live. It’s a beautiful angle that Granik works to her advantage without being preachy about the mistreatment of veterans (though such a topic deserves to be) and even society’s expectations of standard living. Rather, it opens our eyes to the wants and needs of those suffering from PTSD, and it is done so elegantly.
Another standout theme of Leave No Trace that truly establishes its demand for empathy resides in its sophisticated message of learning to accept change whether it be personal, physical or even mental. This is shown through the actions and dialogue led by Thomasin McKenzie’s character Tom. What begins as a distaste for normalcy soon evolves into a strong desire to know, understand and thrive in that type of community. Eventually, it becomes apparent that her reluctance towards being thrust into society stems from Tom’s allegiance to her father’s feelings over her own. However, she soon realizes that living a life on the run and alone is not what’s best for her even if that means separation from the one person who’s been her champion, educator and protector. But discovering the courage to accept your differences and preferences is exactly what this film is about and something to which we all can relate. It’s a detailed yet nuanced revelation about understanding who you are and recognizing the path that is appropriate for your life despite how unfamiliar or unconventional it is. In essence, it comes down to living your life for you.
While Leave No Trace almost gets trapped in its relaxed and somewhat lethargic pacing, Foster and McKenzie are able to carry it out of its bind with their dynamic alone. Their ability to feed off of each other is just another reason why the film is so remarkable. Furthermore, Granik’s film shines most in the moments it reveals very little. For instance, instead of flashbacks to war scenes, we’re shown Will’s reactions to things that trigger his memory of war. This decision is just one of many special moments that elevates the film from a basic character piece to one that allows the audience to feel like they’re involved with the story personally.
Ultimately, Leave No Trace has the ability to instill its captivating story into your heart and mind. Whether it be through its strikingly picturesque stills or the heartwarming connections between the main characters, there is something in this film for everyone. The beauty of it all is while the characters find any means necessary to erase their existence from the world, they will surely find a way to creep into and leave a trace in your heart.