Review: “Leave No Trace” Breathtaking and Complex

I love Ben Foster and I found the trailer for this movie compelling. Coming from the Academy Award-nominated Debra Granik, I felt this had high potential to be engaging and riveting, with rich performances. The outcome more than lived up to the trailer and the performances are beautiful and dynamic. I found Ben Foster haunting and young actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie was the heart of the film.
The film, directed by Granik, screenplay by Granik and Academy Award nominee Anne Rosellini, is adapted from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment and explores the life of young teenager Tom () and her veteran father, Will (Ben Foster) living undetected for years in Forest Park, a vast woods on the edge of Portland, Oregon. The pair live contently off the land and go to town only for needed supplies. But a chance encounter leads to them being discovered, everything changing as society disrupts their lives.
Social Services removes them from the park and they are forced to adapt to their changed circumstances. Will struggles with the changes, chafing against the restrictions imposed on them but Tom thrives, as she develops relationships and learns to enjoy being around other people. A sudden decision, though, drives them back on a perilous journey into the wilderness as they seek out complete independence. But it forces them to confront Tom’s need for community versus Will’s desire to live apart in isolation.
This film is thoughtful, developing the dynamic between father and daughter. It is not a plot driven story but rather character driven, as it hones in on Tom and Will, centering on their conflicting needs. Will is restless, a veteran who has obvious issues being around others while Tom is social, a stabilizing force on her father but needing more than he can provide her. The story develops their relationship, highlighting Will’s deep love for Tom and his desire to give her a home, even in the depths of the wilderness along with his need to keep her safe. He craves isolation but not from Tom. In counterpoint, we also see how Tom protects her father, when his actions are questioned by others and their home not recognized as such. She states to the social worker, “They don’t understand it was my home.” But beyond their relationship, it is Tom’s growth that is the center of the movie, as she learns to recognize that she needs more. Ultimately, it is about her finding a way to allow them both their needs, even as he struggles to accept her solution.
Not only are the characters rich and complex but so too is the writing. While the film is slowly paced and we meet characters that don’t seem important, it is in reflection you see their impact on Tom and her growth as a character. The connections along her journey tie the story together and allow her to change. Even more, the writers don’t tell you the answers. They allow the characterization to happen through the actions and dialogue between the characters. This enhances the narrative, allowing you to follow Tom and Will’s path, learning as they do.
The filming and setting are breathtaking. Filmed on location in Oregon, the scenery is incredible. It is easy to imagine why the characters would want to escape the city with such beauty surrounding them. Toward the end of the film, the pair find a temporary home in a RV camp. The simplicity of the lives of the people in the camp was stunning. I found myself wishing I lived in such a simple and elegant location.
The acting is nuanced and subtle. Ben Foster’s performance expresses both pain and restlessness as he searches for a way to live outside of society, away from the complexities surrounding people and a way to keep his PTSD as a veteran at bay. His reactions are a realistic depiction of a veteran. His actions and expressions are understated but drive home the character’s struggle with doing what’s best for Tom with what he needs. Breakout actress Thomasina Harcourt McKenzie is equally talented, maintaining the foundation of the story on her skilled shoulders. Her ability to convey emotions is stunning as she gives us a restrained execution, the audience able to empathize with her conflict between making her father happy and what she grows to understand of her own longings. The pair’s dynamic is haunting and loving, and completely drive this movie.
While thought provoking, the film is slow in pacing. While I found the dialogue and characters meaningful and fascinating, others might struggle to maintain interest, especially with some of the journey. While all of the plot has meaning, it is a film that must be watched to the end to realize the depth of the interactions and it is difficult to quantify just how meaningful each moment in the film is to the entirety of the story. Despite the pacing, I did feel that each scene is critical to the overall enjoyment and I think viewers will fall in love with the main characters.
This is a movie about growth and the synergy between Will and Tom. It is their struggle between the freedom of isolation and the community of others that keeps the film engaging and it is the stunning acting that makes this movie so rich. I imagine I could watch it multiple times and find tiny elements I missed in previous viewings. If you like Ben Foster and you like character driven, observant, powerful writing, I recommend you see this movie. It is well worth your time.
Rating: 4.5 trees out of 5.

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