Leave No Trace: A Searing, American Story

Leave No Trace (2018)

Director – Debra Granik

Writer –  Debra Granik

Starring – Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster

Rating – PG

Genre – Drama

Metascore – 88/100

Rotten Tomatoes – 100%

Leave No Trace is a film that, despite having a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, will come and go from theaters across America without fanfare, and that is nearly as heartbreaking as the film. Leave No Trace is a gripping story of a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) who live on the margins of society, making their home in the public forests of Oregon. What could have been a sensationalized, fetishized story of folks on the fringes is instead presented with restraint and precision, making it instead a warm, powerful film about when our best intentions just might not be enough.

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The film is carried by its two leads, Foster and McKenzie, and it tells a different story for each character. For Tom (McKenzie), Leave No Trace is a coming of age story about a girl longing for and trying to understand what a normal life is when a life outside society is all she’s ever known. These longings stand in conflict with her love for her father, whose PTSD creates challenges to living within society. Foster portrays his character with an incredible precision, allowing the audience to feel his anxiety anytime he’s indoors without dialogue explicitly expressing it.

Leave No Trace does an exceptional job telling a convicting story without ever feeling didactic. Never does a character feel the need to list the ways civilization has failed them, yet the weight of their lives is always present, even oppressive at times. Thomasin McKenzie delivers a breakout performance in this film. The bond expressed between her and her father, Will, is so palpable that separation feels an unthinkable crime, and yet the film continually asks, “how much longer can this last?” McKenzie adeptly portrays the tensions that are tearing her apart: her deep and care for her father, and her desire to feel at home in the world.

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The film is beautifully shot and edited, giving a realistic, almost documentary-style feel that grounds the characters in reality and refuses to sensationalize their plight. Adding to the humanity of the movie is the kindness displayed by its inhabitants. It is easy to be as suspicious of the supporting characters as Will is: from the man who offers the pair a home, to a truck driver obliging a ride. These suspicions actually give the film the majority of its tension. However, it becomes clear that Leave No Trace is full of people trying their hardest to do the right thing, which makes each hardship that the pair face even more heartbreaking. The villains in Leave No Trace are not other people, but forces that are much harder to see.

Leave No Trace is the sort of quiet movie that, ironically, leaves a mark on its sparse audiences. Debra Granik, with a measured hand, created a film that refused to fetishize or condescend those on the margins of society. Instead, Leave No Trace is an empathetic, heartbreaking film about hardship, kindness, and the bond between father and daughter.

Author: Josh Johnson

499 Rating : 9 / 10

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