Director Debra Granik has a particular milieu she prefers. As a director, Granik finds the backwoods to be a place of comfort and fascination. She likes small enclaves that the rest of the world doesn’t realize even exist. Her Winter’s Bone was gritty and filled unique details of the last places in America seemingly untouched by the modern world. Drugs gave that film a sense of danger that her new film, Leave No Trace, does not have.
That said, Leave No Trace doesn’t need danger to be compelling. Though it is similarly set away from the modern world, the story of Leave No Trace is family drama that employs unique characters and settings to tell a relatively familiar story. Ben Foster, one of the most interesting and singular actors working today, could not be more perfect for a Debra Granik movie. His quiet intensity drives the plot when seemingly nothing is happening.
Leave No Trace stars Ben Foster as Will, an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who has found a little peace living far from everyday society. With his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), he’s become a survivalist capable of surviving on scraps of necessities and sleeping under the stars in the forests of Oregon. Occasionally, they go into Portland, the nearest city, where Will gets drugs for his PTSD that he then sells for cash to buy food in an underground economy operated by other vets living in a similar fashion.
Will and Tom’s idyll is upset when a jogger spots Tom hiding in the woods and calls the local sheriff to check on her. When the cops find their small camp they immediately arrest Will for trespassing and place Tom in a juvenile home. It takes a few days but eventually Will demonstrates that he’s not crazy. The law says they can’t stay in the forest so social services place them in a home and find Will a job.
Before Tom can get comfortable in regular society however, Will is looking for a way to escape. Unable to return to their place in the woods, they head for Washington state and hopefully a place far from the long arm of Oregon law. What they find, I will leave you to discover but I have no problem believing such a place exists. It’s a fascinating place with colorful characters and a pace of life most of us would not be able to withstand.
Debra Granik is a remarkably patient and thoughtful director. She never rushes her characters, even when such a rush might seem reasonable. Granik is content to give scenes time to play out at their own pace. Some may find it slow, I would call it deliberate. It works when you have thoughtful and fascinating characters, the kind Granik is adept at creating. In Winter’s Bone it was Jennifer Lawrence delivering a brilliant and original character. Here, Thomasin McKenzie has a similarly breakout performance.
Thomasin McKenzie is remarkably compelling. At 18 years old she comes off so much younger and though she is originally from New Zealand, you would never no it from her wonderfully measured line delivery. She has the curiosity and thoughtfulness of a character who has spent a life away from the regular world. Part of that has to do with Debra Granik’s exceptional screenplay but McKenzie really does deliver in Leave No Trace.
Ben Foster is an actor who has missed out on the Academy Awards because he’s just not well known enough. That’s the only excuse I can think of because his work has had a consistent excellence since he was in 2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. He deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in Hell or High Water in 2016 and he deserves a look for Best Actor for his work here. He has a fierceness in his eyes that only the best actors can deliver.
Foster has the kind of quiet intensity that can move a plot along just because we find him so fascinating, In Leave No Trace, it’s hard not to get caught up on what Will might be thinking or preparing to do next. He’s a loving father who has kept his daughter educated and fed all while keeping her from the real world. Is he wrong to do what he does? It depends on your perspective. His daughter is safe and fed but also intentionally homeless.
Foster makes Will’s choice strangely appealing and understandable. When I look around at the world I can definitely see the appeal of going off into the woods and forgetting the modern world. Keeping a child away from the modern world of social media and the consistent ugliness of things like bullying does certainly hold an appeal but Granik smartly reminds us of a few of the good things she’s missing as well like friends.
Leave No Trace is a tremendous movie. A deeply compelling family drama that challenges you to try and judge Will and Tom. Do you think Will is wrong to intentionally remain homeless? Is Will so sick from PTSD that perhaps he’s not making good decisions? You will have to make up your mind. At times I was screaming inside for Will to stay in the home the government provided but I can understand his desire to run away.
Leave No Trace is uniquely challenging and yet has a very relatable, rather familiar story of a father and a daughter and the forces at play that could divide them. This film is both deeply original and yet easy to follow and be compelled by. It’s also just a really great showcase for one young actress on the rise and one of the most unknown but consistently brilliant actors working today.
Leave No Trace is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and and On Demand rental.