Debra Granik's 'Leave No Trace' Is A Survival Story With Layers

By James Jay Edwards
Released: July 13, 2018
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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.

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Film Review
It's been about eight years since indie filmmaker Debra Granik burst onto the scene with Winter's Bone, the Sundance darling that not only garnered Granik an Oscar nomination, but essentially introduced the world to the pre-Hunger Games, pre-X-Men Jennifer Lawrence (who also was rewarded with the first of her four Oscar noms for her work on the film). Well, a couple of documentary projects later, and Granik is back with the narrative film Leave No Trace.

(l to r.) Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom and Ben Foster as Will star in Debra Granik's LEAVE NO TRACE, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Scott Green / Bleecker Street.

Leave No Trace is about a military veteran named Will (Hell or High Water's Ben Foster) who lives off-the-grid in the forests of an Oregon National Park with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). They live a simple, self-sufficient life that basically seems like they're camping all the time. Of course, this is also illegal, and when they are caught, Will and Tom are put through the social service system. Despite all of the help that is offered to the pair, they still desperately long to get back to their old way of life.

At first glance, Leave No Trace seems like it's going to be just another survival movie, but once the surface is scratched, it's about so much more than that. Granik adapted the screenplay with writing partner Anna Rosellini from the Peter Rock novel "My Abandonment." It's a stirring family story, not only of a father and daughter's survival on their own terms, but of the courage and fortitude that keeps them stubborn in their resolve to live the way that they do. At one point, Tom is asked if she and her father are homeless, and she replies "No, the woods are our home," like it's perfectly normal for them, and the problem is with the people who don't understand that.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie stars as Tom in Debra Granik's LEAVE NO TRACE, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Scott Green / Bleecker Street.

What makes Leave No Trace different from other so-called survival stories is that there is no external threat in the movie. Will and Tom don't encounter any bears or mountain lions at their camp. Even the police and social services people who take them out of the woods make it clear that they are there to help, offering up housing, jobs, and schooling to them until they can get "on their feet." The conflict in Leave No Trace all comes from within. Will suffers from PTSD and Tom longs for a female presence in her life after the death of her mother, so there's still plenty of struggle. It's just not typical man versus nature kind of stuff.

Because of this, Leave No Trace is a subtle and restrained movie. It's also a very economical movie, one that relishes in its minimalism. Granik is a master of showing what her characters can't (or don't) say, so there are a ton of layers to unpack in Leave No Trace. Which is fine, because there are way worse movies that might require a second (or third) viewing to fully understand.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster in LEAVE NO TRACE, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Scott Green / Bleecker Street.
While there are several minor support roles, Leave No Trace is really just a two-person show. Ben Foster is terrific as the tortured father who wants what's best for his little girl, but thinks that the only way to provide it is by keeping her away from the horrible things in society. There are demons deep within Will, and Foster only lets the audience see peeks and glimpses of them. His performance possesses a subtlety that forces the audience to believe in him.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster in LEAVE NO TRACE, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Scott Green / Bleecker Street.

Thomasin McKenzie is equally as good as Foster, sometimes even better. She plays Tom with a combination of confidence and wide-eyed wonder, like she knows what she needs to do to exist, but still wants to see what the rest of the world has to offer her. In many ways, Tom is forced to be the adult in her relationship with her father, and McKenzie is able to pull that off without even sounding condescending towards him. With a little luck, McKenzie may be poised to break out in the same way that Jennifer Lawrence did after Winter's Bone. She's that good.
Debra Granik is herself a cinematographer, but for Leave No Trace, she entrusted the photography to Michael McDonough, who also shot Winter's Bone for her. Granik and McDonough make a good team, because like Winter's Bone, Leave No Trace looks beautiful. The film was shot on location in the mountains of Oregon, and McDonough captures the lush forestry and breathtaking landscapes with long takes and wide shots, allowing the audience to soak up every inch of the land that Will and Tom call home. There's a palpable isolation to the film, even within the scenes that take place "in civilization," which visually reinforces what Will and Tom feel - that they are outsiders. There's also a cold overall vibe to the film that keeps it from merely looking like someone's old camping movies. It's not exactly a tourism advertisement, as Leave No Trace makes its Oregon locations look equally sinister and stunning, but from an aesthetic standpoint, the movie looks gorgeous.

Thomasin  Harcourt  McKenzie  and  Ben  Foster  in  LEAVE  NO  TRACE,  a  Bleecker  Street  release. Credit:  Scott  Green  /  Bleecker  Street.

Release Date
July 13, 2018
MPAA Rating
Peter Rock
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Music Score