Leave No Trace
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Leave No Trace is a powerful story, told simply and presented without judgment. Director/co-writer Debra Granik lets her film unfold with no manipulation. What she ended up with is an enthralling, thought-provoking tale that will certainly stay with me. It also contains two of the best performances I have seen so far this year.
Ben Foster is Will, a military veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. As Leave No Trace opens, he is living illegally in a state park with his teenage daughter, Tom (played by eighteen year-old Thomasin Harcourt-McKenzie). Their days are full of important chores. Additionally, Will makes sure to teach Tom the things she is missing by not going to school. One day, their camp is discovered by park rangers, forcing them into some tough decisions that could forever alter their way of life.
The two leads and the writers have a difficult job here. They need to establish the central relationship, the characters’ daily lives and Will’s demons without a lot of exposition. That can be hard when a story is dealing with as much history as this one is. But there is never a doubt as to why the characters make the choices they do.
Part of that comes from the actors. Ben Foster is generally very intense in his roles. In films such as Hell or High Water, 3:10 to Yuma and The Messenger, he forcefully projects love, fear and anger in a way that makes it difficult to take your eyes off of him. He brings a different type of intensity to Leave No Trace. His performance is quiet and haunted. It is clear he has been damaged by his war experiences to the point where living among others is something he cannot do. Instead of outright explaining this at the outset, Granik allows Foster to show this through his actions and, even more importantly, his reactions.
As tremendous as he is, Leave No Trace becomes humanizing and relatable thanks to the brilliant turn from Thomasin Harcourt-McKenzie as the brave, loving and innocent Tom. She trusts and adores her father, but also, in some ways, needs to take care of him. Tom is mature beyond her years, in part because Will treats her with the respect of a peer and in part because their lifestyle left her little choice but to grow up quickly.
While there are many good performances these days, very rarely do I forget I am watching acting. Harcourt-McKenzie embodies Tom so well and comes off as so genuine that the character became real to me, like I knew her. Eight years ago, Debra Granik directed Jennifer Lawrence to her first Oscar nomination in her breakout role in Winter’s Bone. Thomasin Harcourt-McKenzie’s performance here is every bit as good as that one.
The screenplay by Granik and Anne Rossellini (adapted from the 2010 novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock) is subtle and focused as it observes these people’s lives. If there is something Granik and Rossellini want to say about homelessness or mental illness, they never use speeches or plot twists to smack the viewer over the head with it. Everything is there in how the characters interact with each other and their surroundings. Leave No Trace is very much a character driven film and the screenplay gives Will and Tom the opportunity to determine their own narrative. It handles them delicately and with great respect. The result is quite moving.
Leave No Trace (104 minutes, not including the end credits) may seem predictable to some, but I see it more as inevitable. From where they are when the movie begins, this is the only path these two people could have taken. By watching Will and Tom instead of guiding them, Granik creates a lovely, sad and very touching picture, buoyed by a pair of fantastic performances. This is a wonderful film.
4½ out of 5
Ben Foster as Will
Thomasin Harcourt-McKenzie as Tom
Directed by Debra Granik
Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini