LEAVE NO TRACE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Debra Granik

Stars: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Bob Werfelman, Jeff Kober.

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Will (Ben Foster, from Hell Or High Water, Hostiles, etc) is a psychologically damaged war veteran who is living off the grid with his dutiful teenaged daughter Tom (New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, from popular tv soap Shortland Street, etc). Will likes the sense of isolation and is homeless by choice. The pair have been hiding and living in Forest Park, a huge wilderness area outside Portland Oregon. They live off the land, but once a month they venture into Portland, so Will can collect his welfare cheque. Tom has been home schooled by Will but he has also taught her survival skills and the importance of living in harmony with nature.

But when they are discovered and removed from the park by the authorities their lives are changed. Social welfare officers try to learn more about the pair and their reasons for living in the park. Tom tests ahead of her age level academically. But Will finds it hard to adjust to living in the house provided for them by the well-meaning social workers and he finds temporary work in a Christmas tree farm. The authorities also question the nature of his relationship with Tom.

Before too long Will grows restless and returns to his peripatetic ways, taking Tom along with him as they travel across the state to find a new refuge. However, Tom has grown tired of this nomadic lifestyle of drifting and living rough and wants to settle down and remain in one place.

Leave No Trace is the latest film from Debra Granik, who gave us the powerful Winter’s Bone in 2010.  This gentle, intimate and leisurely paced film shares a few thematic similarities, as it looks at outliers, marginalised people living on the edges of society, and a complicated father/daughter relationship. The film is part coming of age story and part adventure/road journey, and explores themes of family, a materialistic society, what home means to different people, mental illness, toxic masculinity, and the modern reliance on technology and gadgets. It also offers up a trenchant examination of the broken state of contemporary America and considers how returning soldiers are often forgotten or abandoned and fall through the cracks when they are at their most vulnerable or damaged. These were themes explored in her previous film, the documentary Stray Dog. Granik’s approach is simple, understated and minimalist, and her style more observational, but she suffuses the film with a sense of compassion and humanity that is all too rare in films today. But there are no villains here, nor does the film provide easy answers.

And it also features another strong female character. Winter’s Bone was the breakout role for the young Jennifer Lawrence and it launched her career; whether Leave No Trace will do the same for McKenzie remains to be seen, but she delivers a nuanced, mature, confident and thoughtful performance as Tom, who is often forced to be the adult in the dysfunctional family dynamic. Her performance is quite amazing and naturalistic.

Foster is also excellent as the damaged Will, who is a prisoner of his own haunted memories, and his grizzled, haunted visage and world-weary performance suits the troubled character. His haunted stare adds to the enigmatic character and his sense of desperation and isolation. This is arguably Foster’s most nuanced and sympathetic performance since The Messenger. When he came on board he worked with Granik to remove some 40% of the early expository dialogue, which works as it virtually forced the audience to fill in the gaps and backstory.

Veteran character actress Dale Dickey (Hell Or High Water, etc) brings a sense of compassion and kindness to her crucial role as Dale, who shows kindness to Tom and her father while they stay temporarily at a hippy enclave. Dale makes Tom especially feel welcome.

Leave No Trace is based on the 2009 novel My Abandonment written by Peter Rock, which was inspired by an incident that has become something of an urban legend in Oregon. Granik worked with her regular collaborator Anne Rosellini to adapt the novel for the screen. This is a visually stunning film, and the location work is excellent and adds to the atmosphere and creates a strong sense of place. The gorgeous widescreen cinematography from Michael McDonough (Sunset Song, etc) enriches the drama, and captures the ruggedly beautiful settings. And he effectively uses handheld camera to give a sense of immediacy to some scenes. This also lends the film a semi-documentary like realism.

Leave No Trace is a small but compelling film that will appeal to art house audiences and those who love intelligent and mature drama. However, it may not be to everyone’s taste.

★★★★

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