Based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, Leave No Trace is directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) and stars Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as a father and daughter living their lives off the grid, camping in a Portland forest. Perfectly attuned to both their environment and each other, their peaceful lifestyle is disrupted after they are discovered by a jogger (and consequently, the law). Brought back into the fold by the society they’ve managed to avoid, the two confront their reintegration, with differing levels of difficulty.
Having missed this film at the NZ International Film Festival, I was pleased to learn that it had already returned to theatres. Boasting an impressive 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I was fascinated to see what this film had to offer, and fortunately, while I’m not sure it will be for everyone, Granik’s latest output is a contemplative study on those that live on the outskirts of society. From what I can gather (with the help of a quick, post-viewing Google), Granik is a director with not only a clear vision, but also a willingness to immerse themselves into the world they are exploring. And her research has definitely paid off, resulting in a story that is quiet, and powerfully affective.
Will, the aforementioned father, is a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trying to do right by his daughter in his own way, whilst keeping a handle on his own psychological struggles. Ben Foster (a.k.a. the actor I recognised from James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 To Yuma) brings a sensitivity to the role, always playing into this subtle emotional conflict between his paternal instincts and the isolationist attitude brought on by his trauma. Likewise, New Zealand native Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie delivers a fantastic performance, allowing the emotions of Tom to play out slowly both in individual scenes, and over the duration of the film. Watching Tom in Leave No Trace is a masterclass in character development, as her growing maturity and desire for independence moves forward with the film.
In fact, the film really takes the old adage of “show, don’t tell” seriously, with the tender, loving relationship between Will and Tom being established almost immediately, not through dialogue, but through their actions. As they complete the day-to-day chores that allow them to survive in the wilderness, you’ll often get little more than a “good job”, or a look between them. Exposition is virtually non-existent in this film, and it’s wonderful to see films that treat their audiences in such a respectful manner (read: not sideswiping us with an exaggerated emotional outburst). The conclusions these characters reach are developed effectively over the film, and are reflected and influenced by the various supporting characters they come into contact with.
Speaking of “show”, the cinematography for the film is gorgeous, fully immersing you in the natural landscapes of the film, which I think stays in and around Portland. The score and sound design only add to this immersion, allowing you to appreciate the serenity of this environment in a similar manner to the characters inhabiting it. The contrast between urban and natural environments isn’t overplayed either, instead coming across as just another part of the film’s world. Only when assumptions are cast upon Will and Tom do we see their clash of ideologies with the masses; for example, Tom’s insistence that the forest was her home, and Will’s rejection of the rules imposed on him by those that try to rehabilitate him and his daughter.
All of this leads to a level of authenticity in the film that allows you to empathise with these characters, without the need for expository dialogue or overt themes. Granik successfully establishes a serene, modern tale of this outsider father and daughter combo, their relationship, and their ability to adapt to “civilisation”. With the caveat that it might not be for those who aren’t fans of slower-burning films, to me this film didn’t make a single mistake and, as such, I would highly recommend this film.