Movie Review: ‘Leave No Trace’ is a powerful, realistic look at the struggle with human conformity
Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, Peter Rock (based on the novel “My Abandonment” by)
Stars: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster
Synopsis: A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living in an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever.
There is a line within Debra Granik’s new film Leave No Trace, where Will (Ben Foster) tells his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) that there is nothing to worry about within their new living situation because they “can still think our own thoughts.” But what happens when our thoughts are put into question, how will we adapt or respond to such radical changes within our lives? Will we use our past as a guide for how we handle the future or will we mold into something else? Will we let that change rattle us or can we find a way to control that emotion for the sake of others?
The film follows Will and Tom, a father and daughter that live in the woods in a park just outside of Portland, Oregon. Their life, for the most part, is constructive and meaningful, with just a hint of danger of being caught for living on government owned land. Their life is blown up when a hiker spots Tom in the woods, leading to the police finding them and arresting them. They are pulled from their home and forced to conform within the average world, a world they only visit to get groceries or for Will to go to the VA to get pain pills to sell for money.
Will hates the idea of having to conform to the rest of the world’s idea of a normal life but it is the only way for him to keep Tom without losing her to Child Services. They are placed at a farm, where Tom makes friends and starts to try to make the most of her new life while Will is working for the owner of the farm, helping him and his company get Christmas trees ready for his business. As we see the trees being cut down and manipulated for our holiday enjoyment, we can feel Will’s rage and frustration kick in, hating that his life has become nothing more than killing nature, a part of what was a representation of his old home, in order to keep his daughter. This fury inside him leads to them to leaving and be on the run for the rest of the film. Tom asks “did you even try” and the easy answer is no because sometimes people are just incapable of giving up that sense of control for the sake of some compromise. This rage leads Will down a path of uncertainty but it leads Tom down the path of enlightenment.
While Will is struggling within his own life, Tom, as well as McKenzie herself, molds in front of our very eyes. From a confused, dependent child at the beginning of the film, Tom transforms into the voice of reason within this film, the true adult, and finds that what she wants is different than what Will wants. She wants human connection, she thrives in social situations even though she has just been with her father for the most part. Tom is someone that can adapt to her surroundings and become the best version of a human being possible, regardless of her childhood upbringing. And by the end of the film, the roles have somewhat reversed, with Will becoming more of the child and Tom being more of the adult amongst the two of them.
Both performances are superbly acted by Foster and McKenzie, with McKenzie being the shining star. This is expected in Granik’s films now after she discovered Vera Farmiga for Down to the Bone and Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone. Granik’s eye for talent is impeccable, as you can tell that McKenzie was the only one that could truly play this part and one could hope that this leads to more work for McKenzie down the road. It is also nice to see Granik back behind the camera since it took her eight years between this film and Winter’s Bone, a film I was not as high on when it came out. But what both films end up doing is showing the audience other parts of this country and people we would not normally see on the big screen. There is so much love and empathy for this subject matter that you can really see the passion that Granik gives them from behind the camera. Hopefully with this stellar film, it won’t take eight years for us to get another film from Granik and another look into this unique perspective of the country we live in.
Overall Grade: A
Hear our podcast review on Extra Film, coming soon.