[This is a re-post of my Leave No Trace review from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release on June 29th.]
Filmmaker Debra Granik made waves with her second film Winter’s Bone, resulting in four Oscar nominations and the birth of a new young talent in Jennifer Lawrence. Eight years later, she’s finally back with a new narrative feature in the form of Leave No Trace, a father/daughter story with a woodsy twist. While quiet and refreshingly restrained, the film is a surprisingly emotional one, and once again introduces the world to a tremendous young talent in the form of Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.
Based on Peter Rock‘s novel My Abandonment, Leave No Trace tells the story of a man named Will (Ben Foster) who lives in the forest outside Portland, Oregon with his 12-year-old daughter Tom (McKenzie). For whatever reason, Will has chosen to live secluded, almost entirely off the land, and it’s the life his daughter lives with him. She’s not wholly alien to modern conveniences—they walk into the city at regular intervals to pick up a few food supplies and Will’s VA check—but Tom is unprepared for what happens when the authorities discover Will and Tom’s situation and force them to enter society.
What ensues is something of a road movie between Will and Tom, as they at first attempt to live within the confines of a modern dwelling, but Will’s desire to escape once again leads to a few unexpected twists and turns. Everything unfolds pretty quietly and patiently, as Granik takes the time to really hone in on these characters. The result is something of a slow burn—the emotionality of the film kind of sneaks up on you towards the end, and it’s due to the groundwork that Granik has laid throughout.
Parallels will no doubt be made to the 2016 film Captain Fantastic, which starred Viggo Mortensen as a man who had chosen to live entirely off the grid and raise his children as geniuses due to his philosophy-centric homeschooling methods. Leave No Trace is very much not that movie, in that it takes place in the real world and shows the genuine hardships, upsides, and downfalls of Will’s decision—as well as the realities of how this might actually work—instead of painting it as some picturesque fantasy.
Foster does solid work as the very quiet, PTSD-riddled father, but it’s McKenzie who stands out here. This is a breakthrough performance if I’ve ever seen one, as McKenzie layers the character with strength and curiosity, with a robust undercurrent of compassion. She more than holds her own opposite Foster, and this is hopefully the first of many roles in which she’ll be given the chance to shine.
The film also takes care to give Tom agency. Will chose this life for himself, but Tom was born into it. As her life is upended due to being discovered, Leave No Trace has shades of a coming-of-age story a bit, but it’s always grounded in Granik’s naturalism. Indeed, the film is similar to Winter’s Bone in that Granik’s sense of place in nature is compelling and impactful, and it also once again focuses on the lives of those living on the outskirts of modern society.
Granik chooses to keep a lot of character details a mystery, for better or worse. The film could stand to reveal a bit more about what drove Will to make such a striking choice, but it also benefits from letting the mystery be in other instances. This is a movie driven by filmmaking, and Granik’s skill behind the camera drives a lot of the narrative forward. That and, of course, McKenzie’s performance.
Leave No Trace is a wholly unique kind of father/daughter story, but it’s also not sensationalist. Clearly Granik cares deeply about these characters, and she makes great effort to paint them as dynamic, dimensional beings, giving the entire film a naturalistic and grounded feel that prevents the story from going too over the top. We feel the stakes and danger of living in the wild just as deeply as we feel Tom’s desire to make a friend.
Growing up is tough, and while everyone has their own relationship with their parents, there are certain universal truths that strike as familiar. Leave No Trace hits upon these in subtle ways while also telling a story about people living on the margins, those who have been more or less left behind. It can meander in places and it may be a bit too enigmatic for its own good, but for the most part Leave No Trace is an effective and emotionally affecting father/daughter story.