Leave No Trace

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UK Release Date 29th June 2018
Director Debra Granik
Starring Tomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Ben Foster
Runtime 109 Minutes
Certificate PG
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 10th June 2018

We’ve made no secret of our love for Debra Granik over here at BS Towers. The fact that Winter’s Bone somehow didn’t get an Oscar still hasn’t quite escaped us and after a period of silence, we thoroughly enjoyed 2014’s Stray Dog (which we covered as part of the London Film Festival 2014). The latter movie has parallels in Granik’s new movie in the form of ordinary people attempting to overcome the after-effects of combat.

And so, arriving at this year’s Sundance Film Festival London with a good deal of pre-festival buzz, we have Leave No Trace. Adapted from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, this is a deceptively simple tale of a father and his daughter either surviving and flourishing or homeless (depending on your point of view) in the forests of Portland, Oregon. It’s clear from the outset though that this idyllic existence can’t last, not least because Will’s daughter Tom is growing up fast, but also more pressingly because the authorities aren’t going to let it.

Deceptively simple is an appropriate phrase for Granik’s movie. Big themes are carefully laced into the straightforward tale of a father and daughter sticking by each other against the odds, and it’s this down to earth, subtle storytelling that makes this such an accomplished movie. Will (Ben Foster) is a deeply honest, caring man and although it’s not made explicit from the outset, he is suffering from some form of PST. Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), his daughter is getting to that age where boundaries are tested but in her case, these are predominantly literal, their forest camp being the biggest restriction and freedom in her world. 

Granik brings us into the pair’s story by just allowing us to spend time with them as they live their day to day life in the forest. They forage, build and, more ominously, practice hiding, finishing the day by zipping themselves into sleeping bags in the small tent they occupy. The daily minutiae of their existence as they carefully collect materials and build a fire is rendered in careful, intimate close-up. Only Will’s recurring nightmares seem to interrupt their existence. When Tom is seen one day by a jogger and the authorities come calling, they are both forced to face up to the longer term realities of their world. Realities that one is far more willing and able to face than the other.

As the movie is spent with either or both of the main characters on the screen at all times, the central pairing is absolutely crucial to the piece and both are excellent. Foster is the perfect everyman for the role. He comes across as honest and caring at the same time as damaged and selfish without ever going too far on either. Will has only good intentions towards his daughter but his inability to stay in one location and mix with anyone can ultimately only lead to heartbreak for the pair. At the same time, it is obvious from the outset that he is no stereotypical monster. He clearly loves his daughter and an early scene where she finds a necklace on the ground perfectly encapsulates their relationship. Tom knows she can’t take it right away and Will confirms this but she still sneakily scuffs dirt over it as she leaves it for the return journey when her dad has told her it will be fair game.

As with Winter’s Bone, Granik and her casting team have really pulled one out of the bag in McKenzie. A Kiwi actor, know only really for Shortland Street to date, this will be the start of an incredible career for sure. Tom is a wonderful creation and you can see her visibly grow through the film as she is faced with challenges beyond her woodland survival training. She is mature and calm with the adults she meets (indeed her schooling is “ahead of where you need to be” according to the local officer who assess her) but there is always a brittleness beneath the surface that you feel will crack at any moment during the first half of the movie. As the pair move on though, this recedes and Tom becomes a more confident, independent teenager. McKenzie absolutely nails just the right amount of middle distance stare and lack of eye contact with the authorities she doesn’t trust but you can see her warming to the locals who help them, all through a performance that belies her relative youth (she was 17 at the time of shooting).

At the Festival, Granik made a point of introducing her composer, Dickon Hinchliffe, because she was keen to make clear how the score ‘didn’t editorialise’ the movie and she’s entirely correct but this subtlety extends to the entire movie. The score is wonderful, hitting just the right notes without ever pushing your emotions in a particular direction, but it’s elsewhere that this approach of not editorialising really works. The authorities for example, though they appear out of the blue with force, they are not pasted in as terrible ogres, intent on ripping the pair apart. These are just honest people who want to do right by the family. The moderator dealing with the labyrinthine assessment that Will has to sit is apologetic and patient with him as he struggles with the 436 (or something like that, if I remembered that correctly, I want some sort of reward) questions put to him by a disembodied computer voice. Likewise the ranch they are placed with is full of good people and the case workers have obviously tried their best to fit the surroundings to the life the pair have been leading. That the placement doesn’t work out isn’t down to some elitist aloofness to the family’s needs, it is only Will’s creeping PTSD that sees them on the move again.

Every element of the movie is in harmony. Scottish cinematographer Michael McDonough’s camera subtly changes scope and colour as we move from intimate survival in the lush forest to the distant, hard edged greys of the city and back out to rural Oregon. The forest appears to breathe life into the characters whilst they appear to skim off the surface of the city. As Will and Tom bail from the seeming comfort of the ranch though, the first real sense of danger kicks in and it soon becomes clear that his PTSD is putting his daughter and himself at very real risk of injury or worse.

In Brief:

Leave No Trace is another magnificent work for Granik’s quality over quantity CV. Careful, intelligent, emotional, affecting and exceptionally relevant, this is a movie that luxuriates in deep characters and patient story telling. Foster and McKenzie are superb, sharing an impressive chemistry entirely befitting such an intimate movie. Understated almost to a fault, this is a movie that rewards on every level and one that concludes with a complex emotional punch.

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