LEAVE NO TRACE — Review by Cate Marquis

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Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is a gem of a film, a quietly gripping drama about a father and daughter living in a large heavily-forested park outside Portland, Oregon. The power of this film is in its warmth and authenticity, particularly in the the close bond between father and daughter. The film has moments of fear and suspense but there are no car chases, explosions or mayhem, just the drama of human life, a veteran coping with his trauma and trying his best to raise his daughter, a daughter who loves her father but does not share his inner demons. Continue reading…

When we first meet Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) they seem like a father and daughter on a camping trip, playing hide-and-seek in the lush forest. But it quickly becomes clear it is not a game but a lesson – in how to stay hidden.

Debra Granik carefully, skillfully, doles out information, keeps us focused on the here and now, not the characters’ past. Instead, we see them foraging for wild foods, cooking over an open fire or camp stove, carefully tending a garden plot, and the father teaching his daughter history or literature.

The director subtly shows us the details of their life in the woods, and we see a good father doing his best to raise and educate his daughter, no matter how unconventional their life story. We know that daughter Tom’s mother is gone and that it was so long ago that she doesn’t really remember her, but whether mom left or died we don’t learn. Granik even reveals that Will is a veteran, by showing the pair visiting a veterans’ center in town, but beyond that we get little backstory.

A minor misstep brings them to the attention of authorities, which takes them on a life-changing journey filled with misplaced good intentions.

As the father and daughter, Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie are fabulous. Both actors are good and the relationship feels close and real. Ben Foster gives a more tender performance than we usually see from him but we see his raw pain at being forced to fit into the confining expectations of society. He cooperates for his daughter’s sake but his distaste is plain in small gestures, such as when he gingerly puts the television in their new furnished home into a closet and shuts the door, or the pain on his face chopping down trees on the Christmas tree farm were he is given a job.

The film is partly a coming of age film, about a father and daughter on the cusp of the inevitable changes and separation of adulthood, but the film highlights other topics as well. Leave No Trace is a subtle, non-preachy film, although it does have something to say, about traumatized veterans, about how society treats those who don’t fit the norm, and about true family bonds. The film is partly a coming of age film, about a father and daughter on the cusp of the inevitable changes and separation of adulthood, but the film also spotlights the issue of homeless people, particularly veterans, living in parks in Northwest, and shows well-meaning social services that try to force them into the conformity they fled.

motw logo 1-35EDITOR’S NOTE: Leave No Trace is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.