Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey
Director: Debra Granik
Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Rarely has a film about people living on the fringes of American society (with all the political signifiers that entails) been so unconcerned with politics. Or, to put things another way, rarely has a film which speaks to the debate about America's apathy towards its veterans actually deemphasized ideology in order to push empathy. Debra Granik's spare, deeply felt Leave No Trace is one such rarity; a film so attune to the interiority of the characters and the rapturous beauty of its natural environments that it becomes almost unbearably moving. It's a simplistic narrative, but never cheap. The characters can be cryptic, but never impenetrable. Granik's aesthetic is gracefully removed, but never clinical. It's a parable about the falseness of the American dream, but it never feels like a sermon.
Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living inside a Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, and have seemingly perfected the art of survival. They search the woods for mushrooms. They cover their tracks. A pinch of salt is sprinkled atop their hardboiled eggs. At night, they read books by headlamp while shooing away wild animals. By day they hunt, forage, and build fires. At one point, they leave their secluded camp and venture into town to buy supplies. Apparently, even fringe dwellers need candy bars once in a while.
During the film's opening stretch, Granik communicates so much without resorting to speeches or expository information. When Will checks into a hospital in order to get his military-approved meds, we get just enough shading to understand he suffers from PTSD-adjacent traumas. When Tom asks her father about buying those aforementioned candy bars, the playful look of recognition between them suggests a history of closeness dominated by survival. Will is a good father; strong-willed, loving, incredibly proud of his daughter, but also mentally unstable due to his PTSD-related issues. This isn't used as a crutch, but as a complication. His self-absorption stems from his inability to envision a world where he 's forced to interact with other human beings other than his daughter. On the other hand, Tom is an intelligent and self-possessed young woman engaged with her surroundings to the point where a brief stint outside the Park inside a country home opens her up to the possibilities of the outside world.
Will is far too damaged to ever be part of normative society, but Tom is young enough to make the transition, and part of what makes Leave No Trace so compelling is the way Granik charts how father and daughter slowly drift apart. Foster gives a haunted performance as a man who loves his daughter but cannot let go of his own trauma, and in a way, he selflessly gives the film over to newcomer McKenzie, who delivers one of the more unaffected performances in recent memory. Over the course of the film, Tom gradually chooses to walk a different path than the only one she's known her entire life, and McKenzie registers moments of confusion, playfulness, fear, joy, and heartbreak effortlessly. Granik juxtaposes these naturalistic performances with shots of insects, trees, and natural landscapes; giving time and space to the transcendental pull of the wild. Likewise, when Will and Tom find themselves nearly freezing to death out in the forest at one point, Granik wisely allows nature to appear cruelly unconcerned with their fate.
Leave No Trace is a special film, with a climax puncturing the heart. In the end, life is full of complicated choices that may separate you from the ones you love. In order for Tom to grow, she must enter this next stage of maturation. Will, too, must make some difficult choices that will perhaps render him completely severed from human contact. Granik never gives her characters the easy way out, and yet her film's conclusion feels earned. Unlike a lot of pictures dealing with unconventional families (see the cartoonish Captain Fantastic), Leave No Trace respects its audience; understanding that empathy extends to all living things, whether they choose to exist as part of a community or apart from it.