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Leave No Trace Review: Debra Granik Returns to the Wilderness

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Fueled by quietly moving performances and personal storytelling, Leave No Trace makes for a tender portrait of a broken father and his daughter.

Eight years after her sophomore feature Winter's Bone won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for Best Picture, filmmaker Debra Granik is back with another compelling exploration of a young woman's coming of age, in the form of Leave No Trace. Granik's achievements behind the camera on her 2010 feature have been partly overshadowed since then by the fact that it placed Jennifer Lawrence on the path to superstardom. Nevertheless, Granik's poetic naturalism gave the dramatic thriller much of its flavor and her storytelling methods serve her return to the American wildness equally well. Fueled by quietly moving performances and personal storytelling, Leave No Trace makes for a tender portrait of a broken father and his daughter.

Ben Foster stars in Leave No Trace as Will, a traumatized military veteran who lives in a national forest near Portland, Oregon, with his thirteen year old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). When Tom is accidentally spotted by a jogger in the woods one day, it's not long before the authorities come sniffing and discover the pair have been (illegally) staying off the grid there for some time. Will and Tom are then handed over to the local social services, which find the two a place to live, along with a new school for Tom and a farming job for Will.

As Tom gradually takes to her newfound sedentary lifestyle and even starts to enjoy her weekly actives (like going to church and caring for farm animals), Will struggles to settle down and finds the comforts of home to be suffocating, more than anything else. Before long, the pair are packing their things and setting off on a journey into the wild once again. But with no clear destination and surroundings that are far less hospitable than their old forest, is there actually a future for them, together?

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Trading in Winter's Bone's Ozark Mountains for the Oregon woodlands, Leave No Trace fully immerses viewers in its own world on the fringes of urban America and pulls them into the mindset of a soldier who cannot leave the psychological experience of being at war behind him, even as he devotes all his time and energy to caring for his child. At the same time, the film succeeds in telling its story from Tom's perspective and, in doing so, showing how she is able to adapt to her extraordinary circumstances and empathize with her father in ways that other people can't (while still being able to only do so much to help him). Granik, adapting Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment here with her Winter's Bone cowriter Anne Rosellini, seamlessly transitions back and forth between Tom and Will's points of view over the course of Leave No Trace's runtime, making the larger story being told here equally their own. 

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Leave No Trace also makes time for quiet moments of reflection and joy, even as it wrestles with difficult topics and emotionally challenging subject matter. Granik and her director of photography Michael McDonough (who also worked on Winter's Bone) often pause to capture Oregon's forestry in beautiful and intimate detail, without sacrificing the sense of realism that defines the movie's aesthetic as a whole. The approach extends to the way that Leave No Trace documents the minutiae of Tom and Will's day to day lives, whether they're cooking mushrooms in the forest or (in Tom's case) learning how to gently present and care for rabbits. For a movie that deals with PTSD, homelessness, and how the American social structure can be ill-equipped to handle these issues, Leave No Trace is sometimes remarkable in the way it avoids being melodramatic and/or manipulative in its examination of these conditions. 

Foster and McKenzie certainly deserve their own fair share of the credit for Leave No Trace's understated approach. The film is pretty sparse in its use of dialogue, which in turn allows its leads room to make every spoken word count as much as the unspoken implications of every conversation between them and the people around them. As he's demonstrated many times over now, Foster is a terrific character actor and can say more with a neutral look that slowly morphs into an expression of kindness, remorse, or painful understanding than any scripted words could. McKenzie is similarly great here and her interactions with her onscreen father are all the more believable for it - as is her ongoing evolution as a person and growing awareness of the fact that as much as she loves her dad, their life together may no longer be sustainable the way it was when she was a child.

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As admirably restrained as Leave No Trace is, that also makes it difficult to recommend to everyone. It's a film that favors mood over plot and, as such, will understandably be a little too slow and/or soft-spoken for some moviegoers' tastes. Similarly, there's an argument to be made that Leave No Trace is excellent on its own terms, yet falls somewhat short when it comes to advancing Granik's sense of craftsmanship and the themes that she explores as a storyteller. To be clear though, these are surface-level problems that have more to do with explaining why Leave No Trace probably won't have the cultural impact that Winter's Bone did back when it arrived on the scene. 

At the same time, however, Leave No Trace should by and large meets the expectations that fans of Granik's previous work will have, despite the long wait between films. It's a lovingly shot and acted movie that's worth checking out on the big screen, especially for those who are in need of a palate cleanser now that we've just made it past the mid-way point of the summer movie season. Not to mention, the more successful Leave No Trace is in theaters, the better the odds are that Granik will get to direct her next feature-length project well before 2026 rolls around.

TRAILER

Leave No Trace is now playing in select U.S. theaters and will expand to more areas over the weeks ahead. It is 109 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material throughout.

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Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!

Our Rating:

4 out of 5 (Excellent)
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