Leave No Trace Review

The fast-paced technology-driven world we live in is reason enough for filmmakers to gravitate to stories of detachment. There’s strong thematic appeal in characters not only stripping themselves of these dependencies, but also completely removing themselves from society. Yet that’s not what director Debra Granik appears to be after in “Leave No Trace” despite that very setup.

Instead, Granik is far more interested on the central relationship of a father and teenage daughter (Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie) living out in the woods near Portland, Oregon. All is well and good off the grid until they’re discovered, forcing social services to get involved, uprooting them from their home and way of life.

Those who remember Granik’s last film, the Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone,” which she also adapted from a book with co-writer Anne Rosellini, will understand immediately why she was inspired to make this her first feature film in eight years. Both stories involve strong but vulnerable young women, focus on familial responsibility, and depict life beyond the urban horizon — remote areas populated by folk with a simple way of life. And she tells both stories with the same lack of frills.

On the dramatic spectrum, over-the-top melodrama is at one end and Granik is at the other. She goes about her filmmaking with a quiet, reflective lens, treating her characters like portrait subjects and staying open to the beauty of the locations she captures. As for conflict, not much exists, especially in “Leave No Trace,” and it stays at a simmer that’s no less dramatic for not having exploded in verbal anger or physicality.

Such a mild-mannered approach places great responsibility on the actors to convey the weight of their feelings without much to stand on. Foster, a long-underrated talent, and McKenzie, an unknown, somehow convey a parent-child dynamic whose foundation is unlike any other.

As the easier character to empathize with, McKenzie has the stronger emotional tie to the audience and she gives Tom a remarkable combination of poise, fear, curiosity and compassion. That she shows a lot of promise as an actor is no surprise; this is, after all, the same director (and casting duo, Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee) who launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career.

Foster, however, has the difficult task of portraying a war veteran who is shaken but also non-emotive and living in denial. His character could easily be cold and mean, or a giant pity party, and Foster toes that line right along with the script.

In general, “Leave No Trace” is so subdued that its emotional moments will come as a surprise. One could just as easily give up on watching it as be moved to tears by the end. That’s Granik’s power as a filmmaker — to deliver catharsis not by squeezing the tube, but patiently rolling it up from the bottom. There’s a realism she brings to storytelling that the escapist viewer won’t have the patience for, but she’s proven the payoff for those who can focus and be open to the less noticeable elements of filmmaking beyond forced dramatic stimulus is well worth it.


4/5 Stars


Leave No Trace
Directed by Debra Granik
Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, Peter Rock (novel “My Abandonment”)
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie


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