Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” is a mesmerizing, intimate drama about a teen girl named Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who lives completely off the grid in the Oregon forest with her veteran father, Will (Ben Foster). As the film opens, you think perhaps they’re just on a camping trip, but it quickly becomes apparent that the camp is their home. It’s a happy one for them — they clearly love each other and have built a life that works — but it’s in a precarious bubble. Continue reading…
Despite their best efforts at concealment, that bubble pops, and Tom and Will’s camp is discovered. The authorities who come for them aren’t unsympathetic and do their best to help, but Will — who suffers from PTSD and is actively against all things that are part of “society” — wants nothing more than to escape. Tom, however, is cautiously excited to meet new people and experience life outside the woods.
Where their story goes from here isn’t always easy to watch, but thanks to McKenzie and Foster’s fully committed performances and Granik’s nuanced direction, it’s powerful and compelling. Basing her script on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock (which itself was inspired by a true story), Granik creates genuine tension and peril without ever relying on actual violence. It’s never in question whether Will loves Tom and wants the best for her. This is a movie about hard choices — and about how important it is to understand those you love and give them what they really need, even if it’s not what you would choose for them. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: Ben Foster delivers a nuanced, heartbreaking performance as a father who is so emotionally damaged that he is raising his 13-year-old daughter entirely off the grid, far away from school, society, and other people. When the family is brought into the orbit of social workers, it becomes a struggle to stay together. Debra Granik’s latest is a richly detailed, empathetic tale of outsiders trying to live life on their own terms, their rejection of social norms becoming a battleground over what is in the best interest of the child. And Granik, who introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence with her film Winter’s Bone, makes another startling discovery in Thomasin McKenzie, terrific as the young girl at the heart of the drama.
Susan Wloszczyna: The very idea of going off the grid sounds mighty appealing right about now. No cable news. No digital gadgets. No concerns about the future save for surviving day by day by using your own wits. Leave No Trace presents a truth-based back-to-nature utopia of sorts shared by Will, a military vet dad who has been left traumatized by his years of service, and Tom, his precociously perceptive teen daughter. Their tight bond as they live off the land in a nature reserve outside of Portland has echoes Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Thoreau’s Walden, yet feels like it is just the relief we need from our tumultuous times. Read full review.
Nikki Baughan: 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. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Debra Granik has a great gift for finding extraordinary young actresses and guiding them through stories of subtle complexity and humanity. “Without a Trace” is on its surface a story of a father and daughter living off the grid, on the fringe of society. In reality, it is a heightened version of the relationship every parent has with a child, the irrational efforts we make to protect them from what we see as threats, and the bittersweetness of seeing them become their own people, with their own lives, destinies, and decisions. We see Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s character first as living entirely in the world her father has created for her, looking to him for everything she has to know. And then we see the small moments and realizations that lead her to believe in her own voice about her future. Beautiful performances by McKenzie and Ben Foster, a compassionate screenplay co-written by Granik, and an intimate, naturalistic style of storytelling make this a quiet wonder.
Anne Brodie: Debra Granik’s sobering Leave No Trace. based on Peter Rock’s fact-based My Abandonment, follows a teenage girl and her father, homeless, on the run and camping in a huge urban park. It’s a compelling study of survival and family bonds, but it’s also about the war wounds and the lasting effects of PTSD. Read full review.
MaryAnn Johanson Once again, we see a female filmmaker bringing such a fresh perspective to a topic that has been dealt with extensively by male filmmakers that it feels like the subject has barely been broached before. Writer-director Debra Granik’s take on PTSD in military veterans is of course compassionate but perhaps slightly less tolerant of the isolation that her male protagonist — beautifully portrayed by Ben Foster — uses to self-medicate. This may be the gentlest exploration of the damage that toxic masculinity — in this case, a withdrawal from most human contact and interaction — inflicts on men, and on those they love.
Jennifer Merin Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is a gripping drama about a teenage girl who lives with her dissident father in survivalist mode, on the run, the woods. Dad and daughter shun society, until they are discovered by authorities who force them to enter the mainstream and conform. Debra Granik’s superbly subtle storytelling style forwards the film’s narrative in unexpected ways that create an environment of fear, without relying on explicit visual violence or dystopian elements. She eschews obvious exposition to explain the renegade family’s game plan, preferring to let complex character development carry the narrative. She elicits stunningly authentic and compelling performances from Ben Foster as Will, the Dad, and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie as his daughter, Tom, as they meet the challenges of daily life and survival as defined by their unique family behavior.
Esther Iverem: “Leave No Trace” offers an up-to-date interrogation about the meaning of home, family and safety in today’s United States. The juxtaposition of human turmoil and the natural world’s endangered tranquility adds to the narrative of a world out of balance.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Debra Granik’s third narrative feature is yet another powerful, intimate drama about the power of family bonds and of a young woman’s will to survive. Starring Ben Foster as Will, a traumatized veteran who lives off the grid, and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom, his 13-year-old daughter, the film follows the father and daughter in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon. Only those woods are actually a park, and the authorities inevitably step in to force Will and Tom into another living situation. Granik one again elicits a revelatory performance from a young actress: McKenzie, like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, is expressive and understands the poignancy of a pause, of silent communication, of a look that can say so much. Although the film might have benefited from a lesser known actor than Foster, he is still up to the challenge of subtlety that the role demands. Granik has proven herself a keen observer of people living in the grim fringes of America’s landscape. Despite the heartbreaking stories she tells, she gives them (particularly the young women in her films) a flicker of hope in the darkness.
Kristen Page Kirby: Leave No Trace is similar to 2016’s Captain Fantastic in that it focuses on dads raising their children in what most would describe as “unusual” circumstances. Leave No Trace is different, though, in that Will and his daughter Tom are what most would describe as “homeless” (“unhoused,” corrects a social worker in the film). The two movies ask the same question, though: Do the choices that parents make really reflect what is best for the children, or best for them? It’s a question that Tom begins to grapple with as she, like all teenagers, develops the sneaking suspicion that her dad doesn’t know everything. Moreover, we see Will start to wonder if he’s made the choices he’s made not out of a desire to give his daughter a certain type of upbringing that he genuinely believes to be better than the norm — or if he’s doing so out of selfishness. Ben Foster, a highly underrated actor, is at his best here; Thomasin McKenzie can’t quite keep up with him, but when she’s on her own she shines. Like in Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik excels at shooting in nature, bringing the audience in to the damp and drizzling woods of Washington State. Leave No Trace is not only a coming-of-age movie for Tom but also for Will, as he realizes that he, too, has a lot of growing up to do.
Cate Marquis 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. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore: Leave No Trace embraces the complex emotions between a father and daughter under rather unusual circumstances. Thomasin McKenzie gives a refeshingly honest performance. As a young girl trying to navigate her teenage years, she is caught between her ailing father and needing to be feel stability and normalcy. Ben Foster’s raw portrayal of a former soldier with PTSD is captivating in its quietness. He strikes a gorgeous balance between firm educator and adoring father wanting nothing more than to protect his daughter from harm; whether that be from the elements or normative social influence. Leave No Trace is a coming of age story in an unexpected environment.
Title: Leave No Trace
Directors: Debra Granik
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Running Time: 109 minutes
Screenwriter: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini based on Peter Rock’s novel
Distribution Company: Bleecker Street Media
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin