Leave No Trace review Thomasin McKenzieYear: 2018
Director(s): Debra Granik
Writer(s): Debra Granik
Region of Origin: USA

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Rating: PG
Color, 109 mins

Synopsis: A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living in an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever. (Source)

Every once in a while, a film forces us to stop dead in our tracks. Right now, that film is Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. Granik’s latest is a subtle masterpiece, adapting a story from Peter Rock and transforming it into a sobering look at connectivity in the modern world. Granik balances a lot of ideas through her focused microcosm, using PTSD and coming of age to dissect a complex and undeniably affecting father-daughter relationship. Tethered to two powerhouse performances from Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Granik’s film is mandatory viewing. It’s a powerful reminder of the impact that we leave on this world, no matter who we are or how inconsequential our lives may seem.

Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live a simple and secret existence just outside of Portland, in one of its national parks. They don’t have much, but they share an unbreakable bond and find mostly everything they need in the woods surrounding them. Beneath the surface of their isolated bubble, however, lies an unsaid tension that threatens their reality. There’s also an unease to Will, who is quietly being consumed by a secret burden. When Will and Tom are discovered without warning, they’re forced into a government program meant to reintegrate them into society. This new world is instantly alluring for a curious Tom, who begins to make friends, but terrifying for Will, who can’t cope with the idea of putting down roots. As Will and Tom do their best to adapt, they’re also forced to confront some deep truths about one another.

Underneath it all, the film is two stories deftly stitched together, featuring two characters who paint an incredibly complex portrait of family and past trauma. On one side, we have Will’s nuanced struggles with PTSD, which the film never outright speaks about, but instead chooses to peel back through layers and evocative flashbacks. The other half features Tom and her social awakening, outgrowing the isolated lifestyle she’s known. Together, these two parts collide and cohere through a moving series of events. Granik’s handling of her disparate perspectives is always done with utmost care, never cancelling out one viewpoint but giving each the time and space it deserves. As such, the film defies convention or easy classification, eventually leading to the idea that each of us carries difficult and diverse struggles, but that despite it all, there’s a natural grace and peace through community.

Leave No Trace review Ben Foster Thomasin McKenzieIntegral to Granik’s story, are performances that mine depth through inescapable intimacy.  As Will, Ben Foster is as impactful he’s ever been. Combating paternal instinct and impulsive fight-or-flight urges, Foster gives the story a ground to stand on, laying the foundation with a humane and harrowingly realistic portrayal. There’s a torment to Will that is never overdone, allowing us to feel his battles rather than be told about them. Opposite, Thomasin McKenzie’s Tom is just as impactful. McKenzie is powerful, a show-stopping presence who brings maturity to what has to be a very difficult role. Like Will, most of Tom’s troubles are internal, but McKenzie has the chops to naturally articulate and navigate some very dense waters. This is absolutely a standout for the young actress, who gives an indication that she’s bound for big things. Outside of Foster and McKenzie, Dale Dickey and Dana Millican are play two connections to society, each offering respite from Will and Tom’s restlessness.

On every level, Granik’s film offers a deft command of tension, tone and humanity. Though there have been plenty of films that have tackled similar ideas, Granik’s approach is rare and affecting, and as uplifting as it is tragic. This is a film with true power, highlighting the importance of empathy and compassion in a world that’s constantly shifting and changing. Leave No Trace is already one of the year’s most accomplished and understated films, and one that’s bound to stay close to the top as the year comes to a close.

SG