Leave No Trace (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Debra Granik must have a real talent for discovering actresses. Think about it—in 2004, she directed then-unknown Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone”; in 2010, she made “Winter’s Bone,” the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. I sincerely hope that this streak continues with Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a New Zealand actress who delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and has the makings of a star on the rise. In Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one of the most moving films of 2018, she delivers a nomination-worthy performance as a teenage girl who is devoted to her mentally struggling father…but tries to find it within herself to drive away from him.

“Leave No Trace” is a harsh and brutal yet heartwarming and terrific drama about a child breaking away from a parent. It begins with Will (Ben Foster), a widower and PTSD-stricken war veteran, and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (McKenzie) illegally living on a nature preserve just outside Portland, Oregon. They’ve made the woods their home, they’ve managed to survive together, and he teaches her how to get through certain scenarios such as the possibility of getting caught and having to run off. She doesn’t know what modern society is like, and he won’t give in to society’s rules anymore to let it happen to his daughter.

One day, they get found out by park rangers and are brought to the authorities. Instead of separating the two (as would happen in a lesser film…and maybe reality, but whatever), Social Services asks the right questions and get the answers that require them to stay together under their terms. (At one point, Tom is offended by the question of whether or not Will abused her in any way. Thankfully, SS is smart enough to realize he hasn’t.)

That’s the first act. The second act continues with Will and Tom living in a house to themselves, meeting community members, getting employment, making friends, etc. Will can’t adjust and won’t allow himself to make much of an effort, whereas Tom makes a very good attempt to belong to this new world she’s now found herself in.

But then, “Leave No Trace” gets even more fascinating when it almost seems it’s getting too predictable. The third act shows Will taking Tom with him to start anew somewhere else, and we see how difficult it is for Will to find comfort and how troubled Tom is when she realizes her father is dragging her down with him.

What makes “Leave No Trace” so special, apart from the excellent performances from both McKenzie and Foster, is that a lot of it plays with minimal dialogue. The acting and the filmmaking are strong enough that we can understand what the characters are going through when they don’t have to project their plight onto each other using a lot of dialogue. I don’t need to be explained why Will feels the need to isolate himself or why Tom would rather try something new than resort to the same thing over and over again, and so on. (Apparently, when Ben Foster signed onto the film, according to IMDb Trivia, he and Granik removed 40% of the dialogue from the script—a brilliant choice.)

The questions of what it means to be a parent, the values of adapting to society, and what it means to care for yourself and for your loved ones are all raised in “Leave No Trace.” And the few answers that we get lead to harsh truths.

Ben Foster is more calm and relaxed than usual, making for an effective performance. But the performance I’m walking away with each time I see “Leave No Trace” is the one by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. I can’t say enough good things about her—she’s just perfect in this role. And I sincerely hope she gets even more work after this.

As with “Lean on Pete,” another film from 2018, “Leave No Trace” isn’t afraid to be harsh and moving one moment and then beautiful and heartbreaking the next. Any film that successfully takes on that bold move is welcome in my theater.

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