Leave No Trace


Into the woods

Main Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie

Director: Debra Granik

So what happens when people cannot conform? Are they automatically ill or criminals or outcasts? What about their children? Do you need a traditional house and school to grow and be healthy, happy, and safe? How should we deal with people who want something vastly different from what society dictates? And what do we do if it was society that made them that way?

All these questions are asked in the movie Leave No Trace, based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock.  The story begins with a father and daughter living in a Pacific Northwest forest. They are isolated, using no technology, and getting along just fine. Sort of. Dad has some pretty bad PTSD from his time in the military but deals with it fairly effectively with the help of his daughter and his preferred wide open spaces.

It turns out that they are not living legally – their camp is on public land. So when they end up in the system, things need to change. Also, the daughter (who unlike the father, has a name – it’s Tom and she is played by Thomasin McKenzie) is growing up and once she experiences some of what she’s been missing she wonders if she can be content to go back to the forest. The bulk of the film has daughter and father (played beautifully by Ben Foster) grappling with what was really inevitable – that they would need to find some way to cope with the widening differences in their individual needs.

This is a lovely little movie. The plot is simple and the pace is leisurely, but the performances and emotional investment into the characters draws us into this seemingly unfixable situation and makes us care about both daughter and father.

What makes Leave No Trace stand out is that writer/director Granik (who also directed Winter’s Bone) resisted the urge to insert a bad guy. The people that father and daughter end up interacting with are just people, not perfect, but without malice. Everyone is doing the best they can with a complicated situation that defies easy fixes. Ben Foster is really, really good as the worn out, scarred man who is doing the only things he can to keep his demons at bay. He loves his daughter, but he can’t always give her what she needs – it’s simply beyond his reach and it breaks his heart. Thomasin McKenzie is a young British actress that will be interesting to watch in years to come. Her quiet command of her scenes is very mature and she doesn’t make the mistake of overacting as an increasingly unhappy teenager. You can feel the connection between parent and child and the pain as it grows tense.

Overall, Leave No Trace is a quiet examination of what it means to need to be outside of conventional society and the price to be paid for that need. The PNW scenery is beautiful, the performances subdued but powerful, and the conundrums presented very worthy of both thought and discussion. I’m taking off a single star only because there are a couple of laggy spots in the middle section of the film, but I’m still giving it an enthusiastic recommendation for my fellow indie movie lovers.

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