FILM REVIEW: Leave No Trace (2018)

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It takes a great deal of confidence for a director to use silence to tell a story, to allow the spaces between plot points to shine through and illuminate the development of the characters without fear of boring the audience. With Leave No Trace, Debra Granik has essentially crafted an ode to those silent spaces, an understated celebration of the ‘show don’t tell’ principle that hums with emotion and leaves a lasting impression on the watcher. With this film, she has cemented herself as a master of minimalist storytelling.

The film opens deep inside the lush green vegetation of a forest in Portland, Oregon, where Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) have built their home, an encampment made up of tents and tarps and the bare essentials they need to live. They have developed a carefully choreographed system to stay well-hidden from passers-by and the park authorities, and this involves moving the camp regularly and, as the title suggests, never leaving any clues to their presence. To them it is an ideal existence; off-grid, secluded, far away from the expectations and obligations of modern society. We get an inkling that part of the reason for their way of life is the desire to run away, not just from society but from personal demons buried deep. The conspicuous absence of Tom’s mother, along with Will’s experiences in the army, seem to be at the root of their way of life, a shared pain that silently co-exists in the camp with them. When they venture to the city for supplies it is as if they are trespassing on foreign land, stepping back into a place they no longer belong.

Their lifestyle is upended after Tom is spotted and police officers show up with dogs to hunt the pair down. The kindly social worker who accompanies Tom back to the camp to pick up some things tries to understand why anyone would want to live like this – is your father abusive? Does he drink? Has he ever touched you? to which Tom responds with disbelief and a flurry of nos. Her bond with her father is palpable, and despite being separated by the authorities, Will and Tom will find each other again – even if the terms of their preferred lifestyle must be compromised as a result.

The remainder of the film is a winding journey back to the forest, shaped by Will’s reluctance to adapt and Tom’s longing for growth and human connection. She is, after all, becoming a young woman; it is inevitable that sooner or later the strength of their bond is going to be tested, and being uprooted from their home is the perfect catalyst for this change. There is a universality in this theme – the total unpreparedness of fathers dealing with their daughters’ transition into womanhood – and this is perhaps why the story feels so grounded, so real. The relationship between Will and Tom is alive, and their characters are beautifully realised thanks to the performances of Foster and McKenzie. Both actors seem to understand the importance of minimalism to this story, especially Foster, whose pent-up emotions quietly swirl and simmer behind the thin veil of denial Will has become so accustomed to wearing. McKenzie inhabits the skin of Tom with a striking level of self-assuredness for someone so young, blossoming from a shy, vulnerable girl into a fiercely independent woman before our eyes, a transformation that leads us gracefully into the film’s poignant conclusion.

Leave No Trace is such an easy film to watch because its story, as well as its central relationship, feels so natural. Granik avoids predictability and cliché by cutting out all exposition, following her intuition and constructing the narrative around the actors’ stunning performances. Every turning along the journey comes as a surprise, and you can’t help but invest your energy into these characters as if they were real people. You want them to grow and be happy and find their true place in the world. What more does a good story need?

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