My Favorite Movies – Leave No Trace (2018)

30 Jul

By Tanner Smith

I think it’s time to admit I won’t be talking about Winter’s Bone in this series. After many, many viewings in nearly 11 years, I still really like the film, but I think I like its lead character (Ree, played by Jennifer Lawrence) more than anything else–so it’s a movie with some favorite “moments” but not really one of my favorite films overall.

Yeah, watch me suddenly change my mind after watching it again and being like, “OK it’s one of my favorite movies now!”

However, Leave No Trace, “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik’s follow-up film, is one that I think is going to stay with me for a long time to come–characters, story, atmosphere, and all.

Watching this film in a theater (the Glenwood Arts Theater in Leawood, Kansas, three years ago) was like an emotional experience, as it felt like the passions of the characters were overwhelming me and I had no choice but to pay attention and fear for them as well as admire them. This is one of those films in which you feel like the characters’ actions and words are reaching out from the screen and touching you. I think much of that has to do with the fact that not much is explained about their situation(s) through a lot of dialogue. It’s just the expressions and carefully-chosen dialogue delivered by powerful actors in brilliant performances that help carry the emotional weight of the characters’ story. Do it right, and the audience can feel like they’re in a whole other place for nearly two hours.

When “Leave No Trace” opens, we meet a father and his teenage daughter–Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie)–living quietly in nature. We don’t know why they’re here or who they are, but we’re immediately intrigued by how they live. It gets revealed fairly quickly that they do live in modern times but not with modern civilization–they mostly live off the land, mind their own business, and only go to the town market once in a while for some supplies.

It’s only through a few props (like newspaper clippings) and a few actions (such as Will’s visceral reactions to helicopters) that we learn Will was a soldier who is now living with PTSD–he has found peace in nature and brought his daughter up to appreciate it the same way he does.

But they’re living in this nature park illegally, and so they’re caught and brought to social services. Thankfully, this isn’t one of those stories in which authority tries to split the father and daughter because they think the father’s a bad influence. (Though, they do make their concerns known because Will & Tom’s way of living is unknown to them. “Your dad needs to provide you shelter and a place to live,” Tom is told. “He did,” Tom replies.) They instead provide a house for Will and Tom to live in, in exchange for Will working on a Christmas tree farm. While Tom is open to trying new things and adapting to this change in her life, Will isn’t having any of it.

And I’ll leave it at that, because honestly, where it goes from there is even more intriguing.

Thomasin McKenzie has received many accolades for her brilliant performance as Tom, but it always bothered me that she was considered a “supporting” actress, because really, the film is seen through her character’s eyes. It’s interesting to meet a teenage girl who wasn’t born into the kind of life or privilege that most of us are accustomed to, and to see her in tune with nature just like her father, who we can gather has lived a life that failed him severely, makes me wonder constantly how she’s going to react to change. And her reactions to a lot of what she sees is pretty refreshing, because she wants to actually try new things.

And it’s even more interesting when you think about it and realize that it takes a lot to not conform–for example, Will refuses a cellphone when offered and that’s seen as a big deal.

My favorite scene: Without giving much away, it’s near the end and a nonverbal understanding between father and daughter when a decision is made.

Wonderful stuff here. And after watching “Leave No Trace” again today, it still leaves a hell of an impression on me.

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