Leave No Trace tactfully tells an equally heartwarming and heartbreaking story of the unconditional love shared between Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Foster and McKenzie deliver raw, tender, captivating and transcending performances. The bond between them isn’t only compelling, it is inspiring.
It is immediately evident that the actors and characters truly know and understand each other. Every look and gesture serves as a shorthand that speaks volumes. They are a marvel to watch and easily draw viewers into their world. Even if we don’t completely understand Will or know the details of his past, we are certain that he is a father who cherishes his little girl and wants to do right by her.
Will and Tom live an isolated and relatively peaceful existence on the grounds of an Oregon state park. They grow their own food and make occasional grocery trips to gather supplies and nourishment they can’t find in the woods. They clearly enjoy each other’s company. They laugh, play chess, read books and hone their survivalist skills. The only stress they seem to experience comes from their fear of getting caught, so they take extra precautions and even run drills to cover their tracks. They have literally spent their lives leaving no trace behind and they’ve managed to steer clear of the authorities, until now.
What is so fascinating about this story is that Will and Tom are consistently met with care and understanding. The innocence and sincerity of their relationship are recognized by everyone they encounter. The struggles that we see them face aren’t societal, rather they are internal.
Father and daughter reach a crossroads when Tom realizes what their lives could be like once they’ve left the wilderness. They could try to find a compromising existence that gives them both conventional shelter and idyllic isolation within a compassionate community. Foster and McKenzie depict their characters’ conflict with such grace and nuance. The look in their eyes reflects the gut-wrenching pain, sadness, and distress caused by this newfound dilemma. We feel how they ache and we are on the edge of our seats waiting to see what kind of life they will choose to lead.
Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini’s adaptation of Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, plays out like a literary work of art. The viewers become emotionally invested in Will and Tom’s story. We are able to take in the stunning landscapes and appreciate the authenticity of their vibrant surroundings. We pick-up on the narrative themes that are subtly presented throughout the film.
This film delicately depicts some of the challenges faced by veterans suffering from PTSD. Throughout the course of the film, we are made aware that Will served in the Marines and we realize his difficulty to lead a “normal” life. However, that becomes secondary because the magic of this film is that the only thing that matters is how Tom sees her father.
At its core, Leave No Trace is a profound story about love, family, loyalty, understanding, and compassion. This film will surely make a star of New Zealand newcomer McKenzie and it should definitely garner some well-deserved accolades for Foster. Granik’s direction is intimate. Viewers feel like we’re intruding on Will and Tom’s private life as we watch their tale unfold. You’ll definitely want to catch this film before awards season.
Leave No Trace (2018) Directed by Debra Granik. Written by Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini. Starring Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober. Leave No Trace is screening as part of the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival.
9 out of 10 stars
This review was originally published on Film Threat.