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Review: Leave No Trace

July 6, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

When we first meet Will (Ben Foster) and his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in Leave No Trace, they are living a secluded life in the middle of a large urban forest in Portland, Oregon, sharing a small tent and foraging for food.

We don’t really know how long they have been living like this, but the father and daughter share a close bond and have settled into a routine between them. Will is a war veteran suffering from PTSD who can no longer handle the pressures placed on him by modern society, and Tom’s mother died when she was young, so we get the sense that she was raised this way and has been living in the woods most of her young life.

They have frequent drills to practise what they will do in the event that somebody finds their camp, and take infrequent trips into the city to stock up on basic groceries, and so that he can collect his welfare checks from the VA office. When the inevitable happens and they are discovered by police, Will and Tom are separated and put into social services, with Tom going under the watch of a social worker (Dana Millican). Arrangements are made for them to live together on a rural farm property, but Will finds himself struggling to readapt to civilization, as Tom starts to discover what she’s missed. But the question soon comes if they would actually be happier living like they used to.

The latest feature from director Debra Granik, who broke onto the scene with the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone in 2010, Leave No Trace is another stark and deeply empathetic character study of people living in the forgotten corners of America. Where as Winter’s Bone was a pitch black crime drama that had a sense of danger and despair running through it, Leave No Trace plays with a sense of serenity underlying its inherent drama that makes it transfixing and almost meditative to watch.

This isn’t a showy film, but instead one that is built around subtleties, and the entire film unfolds with a sense of realism. There are no real villains, and even the police officers and social workers who roust them from their peaceful inhabitance in nature, who could have been painted in an antagonistic light, are instead portrayed as sympathetic and well meaning. The drama feels very grounded, which isn’t surprising considering that the story is based on a novel by Peter Rock that was itself inspired by true events. The film’s suspense comes from a constant sense that the peaceful life Will is so desperately trying to establish for him and his daughter is constantly at risk of being intruded upon.

The film explores many of the same themes that were raised in Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist classic Walden, and in Michael Finkel’s more recent nonfiction bestseller The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the First True Hermit, providing a meditation on the healing benefits of solitude as well as the price that has to be paid in exchange for choosing to live away from society. Will’s PTSD becomes almost like a metaphorical way to explore feelings of restlessness and constantly wanting to get away from it all, but never really being able to, with forces outside your control always pulling you back towards what you are trying to escape.

The film works as both a coming of age story of a teen girl trying to figure out what sort of world she wants to live in, and of her father who can no longer handle the real world and needs to find a way to leave it behind in an attempt to find peace of mind. Will has already been broken by the world, a state that is contrasted by Tom, who is walking the fine line between being young enough to still have an idealistic view of the world, but also starting to discover the realities of it. Will lived amongst civilization once and is now making the choice to get away from it, where as Tom needs to decide what sort of life she wants to live.

Ben Foster does a compelling job of exploring his character’s anxieties about the world and his nascent paranoia, suffering from his own internal demons but also trying desperately to hold it together for the sake of his daughter. It’s a brilliantly minimalistic performance, with Foster playing these complex emotions in a subtle, low-key way that really resonates. The young New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie does beautifully naturalistic work as his daughter, and the two actors bring incredible depth and nuance to their characters and the bond between them.

Built around this pair of masterful performances from Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace is a quietly moving and beautifully shot portrait of people wanting to just live their own lives, and the systems that keep intruding upon them.

Leave No Trace is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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