With films like Winter’s Bone and documentary Stray Dog, Debra Granik has proved herself to be a masterful explorer of life on the margins of society. Her latest work, Leave No Trace – an adaptation of the novel by Peter Rock – again concerns itself with individuals attempting to exist outside societal norms and, in doing so, proves to be a moving study of love, loss and what it means to truly belong. Continue reading…
Ben Foster is exceptional in the central role of Will, an army veteran scratching out an outdoors life for himself and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (the outstanding Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in the expanse of a national park in Portland, Oregon. Found and forced into traditional housing, Will struggles to adjust to a life governed by rules and regulations. In contrast, Tom begins to blossom under the increased human contact, driving a slow wedge between father and daughter in the process.
These two incredible performances are heightened by Granik’s sensitive approach, which eschews judgement or soapboxing in favour of simply following the subtle contours of the pair’s everyday life. Will’s psychological trauma is never explicitly expressed, rather indicated by his haunted eyes, his inability to stay in one place. Similarly, Tom’s increasing need for stability is not verbalised, but made clear by the bonds she forms with the rabbits, bees and, eventually, people that cross their path. As evocatively lensed by Winter’s Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough, the stunning natural landscape brings a much-needed sense of anonymity and escape for Will. For Tom, however, it comes to define a loneliness and hardship that she finds increasingly difficult to accept. “Why are we doing this?” she asks at one point. While Will can’t put his answer into words, it’s clear that, for him, it is simply about survival.
As much as both Will and Tom are desperate to protect each other, their diverging needs open up an unavoidable void between them. In its brilliant excavation of this widening emotional space, Leave No Trace resonates with quiet power. It’s a damning indictment of the modern drive for conformity, a celebration of the healing power of love, and the importance of finding a place to call home; in whatever form that may take.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Leave No Trace is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week.