Leave No Trace

Out of the Woods

One rule of good storytelling is that less is more. One of the things that makes Leave No Trace so effective is not just the story it tells but what it leaves out.

Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), are living in a Forest Park, a nature preserve near Portland, Oregon. They find food, collect rainwater, and sleep in a tent. They also do drills to practice hiding from anyone looking for them. We’re not told why they are there or what they are afraid of. We learn that Will is a veteran, likely suffering from PTSD, but we aren’t told where he served or what happened to him. We learn little about Tom’s mother, other than that her favorite color was yellow and that Tom wishes she could remember her.

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in "Leave No Trace" directed by Debra Granik.

The film, directed by Debra Granik, focuses on what’s happening now. Despite how little dialogue occurs, we soon identify with this father and daughter, who clearly love each other. And their life in the park, which may at first seem strange, soon seems almost normal, and the busy, noise-filled life most of us lead seems strange.

Will and Tom are discovered, taken away, and separated by social services in order to determine if their relationship is abusive and what help they might need. Their living on public land is “illegal,” and they are taken to a house outside the city and told to adapt to regular life. Tom begins to like their new situation, but Will cannot adjust. One morning, he wakes Tom and says, “Pack your things.”

Leave No Trace is Granik’s first film since Winter’s Bone, which came out eight years ago. She also cowrote the screenplay (with Anne Rosellini), based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Leave No Trace is not as dark as Winter’s Bone, but it also introduces a new young actress. Like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, McKenzie shines in this film. Her calm, understated performance is riveting. In the second half of the film, she becomes the focus and the moral center. She loves her father but is also growing up into her own person, one who doesn’t suffer in the way he does.

Their life in the park, which may at first seem strange, soon seems almost normal, and the busy, noise-filled life most of us lead seems strange.

Meanwhile, Foster’s performance is also outstanding, as he communicates strength, pain, and a love for his daughter while saying very little. We don’t know what all he’s been through, but we know he’s fighting a battle within. Both actors carry the film with their commanding presence.

While the film moves slowly at times, Granik’s camera keeps us in the story, and we feel the beauty and the menace of nature. The film includes strong performances from more peripheral actors as well, including Dana Millican as a caring social worker and Dale Dickey as a good Samaritan in the woods.

Granik also uses images that carry layers of meaning and tie the narrative together. For example, a glistening spider’s web frames the film and presents a lonely creature caught in a structure of its own making.

Leave No Trace is an excellent film that not only tells a good story with complex characters but subtly confronts our way of life, so distant from nature.

Leave No Trace is rated PG.


Click here for more from Gordon Houser.