A film review by Craig J. Koban October 21, 2018

RANK:  #8


2018, PG-13, 119 mins.


Ben Foster as Will  /  Thomasin McKenzie as Tom

Directed by Debra Granik  /  Written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the book by Peter Rock




Writer/director Debra Granik's LEAVE NO TRACE is one of the more quietly understated, but ultimately powerful character dramas that has come out this year, mostly due to her dedicated observational eye as a filmmaker, a finely attuned cast, and a compelling thematic undercurrent about the nature of survival and how one parent copes with rearing their child without any conveniences of a modern technological society. 

It's been eight years since her last film, the dark and sobering WINTER'S BONE (the same one that ushered in a then young Jennifer Lawrence as a star), which I thought was one of 2010's very best films.  Granik returns to the same underlining ideas contained within her last film (which showed Lawrence's character trying to survive in the economically ravished Ozarks), only this time showing a tight family unit - comprised of just a father and daughter - and how they eek out a life completely apart from the rest of society, and without any of its creature comforts.  Beyond that, LEAVE NO TRACE is also a deeply heartfelt tale of adolescence, separation and isolation, and what fathers do to teach their kids what they think is right in the world. 



There have been many films - perhaps far too many to count - about characters that live in seclusion and in the wild, but very few are done with such a delicate, sensitive, and open minded frame of mind as what Granik does here.  LEAVE NO TRACE's basic premise could not be anymore simple (a former solder that suffers from crippling PTSD tries to raise his teenage daughter away from the world and in a forest), but it speaks to the universality of the how parents will do whatever it takes - and I do mean whatever - in order to secure what they feel is a proper upbringing and future for their offspring.  What's interesting about Granik's take on this material is that it rarely becomes predictably manipulative like, say, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, but instead shows its characters in a state of relative contentment.  She doesn't judge these fringe personas, nor does her film go out of its way to make up our minds for us about what to think about these people.  Refreshingly, she lays her characters out for us to explore, and never overtly states that their choices as a family unit are right or wrong.  There's an intimate respect that Granik has for audience members, which is what makes LEAVE NO TRACE all the more uncommonly fascinating and touching all the same. 

And as an effective companion piece to WINTER'S BONE, LEAVE NO TRACE presents a portrait of a type of family unit that rarely, if ever, gets explored in contemporary fiction, which allows for her films to have this wonderful aura of discovery about them.  Plus, her latest effort contains two of the finest performances of the year, the first of which involves the terribly underrated Ben Foster, who plays Will, a former Iraq War soldier and window that's still suffering the from tremendous emotional pains of combat.  He lives in a public park outside of Portland, Oregon with his thirteen year old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, an extraordinary new find), and they do so in almost complete isolation from society as a whole.  They only head into town when they need supplies required for basic survival, but that's about it.  All in all, Will and Tom live in the wild...and are ostensibly happy with their situation and with each other's company.  They're resourceful, intrepid, tough willed, and content.  Ultimately, they wouldn't have it any other way. 

Their segregated existence is changed forever when Tom is accidentally spotted in the woods by a nearby townsperson, which prompts police involvement and, in turn, leads to both of them being arrested and taken to social services.  A social worker is called in to take Tom away from her father to determine whether or not he remains fit to be her father, but once it's determined that Will is no tangible threat to his daughter, social services decides to reunite the pair, give them a house to temporarily live in, and secure a job for Will.  Concurrent to this is Tom beginning school and becoming acquainted with other kids her own age, but Will unfortunately has great difficulty acclimating himself to his new occupation and life outside of the wild.  Within no time he decides that it's imperative to take his daughter back into the woods where he thinks they belong, not fully understanding that she grows to not fully support that idea any longer. 

I think that it's so decidedly rare to have films like LEAVE NO TRACE that focus on the sometimes harmonious, but sometimes fractured relationship between father and daughter, and one of the modest pleasures of Granik's film is that it slowly and patiently builds up this family unit from the ground up.  Will is emotionally damaged goods that has an almost incurable fear of living in the real world (which, no doubt, his PTSD is contributing to).  Tom, on the other hand, seems unusually wise for a girl so young that also happens to have a great love for her father and can't seem to let go of him.  Plus, she doesn't hate the type of life he has created for them in the forest.  She's steadfastly loyal to Will at the risk of not exposing herself to normal things that almost all teens are while growing up during such an awkward period.  But when Tom starts to get a taste for the much larger world beyond the forest her eyes begin to open and she starts to notice logical cracks in Will's desire to abandon society yet again.   

I think it's important to state at this point that Granik never really judges Will, for example, for his parental decision making.  She doesn't chastise him, nor makes him a short-sighted figure worthy of easy mocking.  No, Will is presented as a tremendously well meaning paternal figure that just happens to have deep penetrating phobias about being around other people and being apart from nature, which he sees as a calming and stabilizing influence in his life.  It's no wonder why he comes to loathe his situation when he and his daughter are taken from this peaceful existence away from the city, and in particular the irony of Will's new job (cutting down trees in the forest and prepping them to be sold for Christmas) is a manifestation of a world that's destroying the life that he once inhabited.  It should also be noted that the kind hearted social service characters are not one-sidedly presented as intrusive villains here.  They too have noble minded intentions like Will, albeit their decision to strip him and his daughter away from a life they both mutually love serves as a catalyst for Tom making a heartbreaking decision that will change their small family dynamic forever.  I love the fact that LEAVE NO TRACE contains no heroes of villains, just a series of good people desperately trying to do the right thing...at least in their minds. 

You will not find two more quietly soulful and serenely impactful performances in a film this year than what you'll witness with what Foster and McKenzie do with their very tricky characters.  Foster has always been a terribly under appreciated actor when it comes to fully immersing himself in a wide variety of diverse roles, and here he shows his tremendous range yet again playing a deeply tormented, but undeniably caring individual that struggles with dealing with his own debilitating mental condition while trying, as only he can, to provide for his daughter's emotional well being.  And, yes, young McKenzie sure reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence's low key and naturally lived in performance she gave in WINTER'S BONE.  She has the toughest acting challenge here in playing a torn character that - once given a taste of what resides beyond the forest - begins to yearn for more in life, but nevertheless feels conflicted and guilty for how those new feelings go against her father's wishes.  In a way, she finds herself trapped on multiple fronts.  There's not one false note in the New Zealand actress' exquisitely realized performance: Tom wants a life independent from her father, but doesn't as well, and considering the opposing layers of this character McKenzie invests in them with the poise and confidence of a veteran actress.  She's that good here. 

In the wrong hands, LEAVE NO TRACE could have been unwatchable and sensationalistic trash that reveled in manipulating audiences for the worse.  I think what Grabnik does here is remarkably difficult in telling a unique survival and coming of age story with relative detachment.  For Will and Tom, their story is not just one about physically surviving the harshness of the wild and all the challenges presented therein, but also spiritual survival when fate steps in and capsizes their perceived cozy existence off of the grid.  The challenges that this pair face aren't solely occupied in how they adjust to a modern world, but also in how they learn to still love one another with the potential of living apart in the future.  And it's that notion of family sacrifice that's at the core of LEAVE NO TRACE and ultimately speaks volumes to the shared human condition.  Granik's style here isn't of the showy, Oscar bait type of clap trap theatrics; her spare and less is more approach to her narrative and characters allows for everything to feel so grounded and authentically rendered.  My biggest take away from LEAVE NO TRACE is that Granik, when all is said and done, displays atypical empathy for her characters, especially ones that - in a more misguided film - would have cruelly judged them.  On a superficial level, this film is about literally homelessness, but ostensibly asks larger and more penetrating questions about what people really need to be happy.  

LEAVE NO TRACE isn't flashy, but it incontrovertibly moved and challenged me in ways few dramas do these days.

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