LEAVE NO TRACE – Review by Brandy McDonnell

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After garnering near-universal acclaim with her 2010 thriller Winter’s Bone, which introduced the world to Oscar-winning superstar Jennifer Lawrence, director Debra Granik makes her long-awaited return to feature film with the empathetic and engrossing drama Leave No Trace, one of my favorite movies of 2018.

The film starts out mysteriously, almost meditatively, as Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) rough it in a carefully camouflaged tent in a vast nature preserve.

The screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini, adapted from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, slowly, subtly trickles out a few details: Will is a widow and a war veteran, he and his daughter have lived undetected in Portland, Oregon’s Forest Park for a good long while, and they occasionally go into the city to sell the PTSD meds Will gets from the VA to other vets and then shop for groceries and supplies.

A stern but loving and protective father, Will drills Tom on how to survive and stay hidden, and he has a tight bond with his bright, curious and quiet daughter.

But when the pair is caught and cast out of the public park, it sends father and daughter on a physically and emotionally fraught journey to find a new home.

Granik, who divides her time between making documentaries and feature films, neither romanticizes nor sensationalizes the family’s off-the-grid existence, and she thankfully spares us clichés like wartime flashbacks or teenaged angst. She also doesn’t politicize the human costs of war, but it’s impossible not to think about them with every time Foster’s Will winces at the sound of a helicopter and stares hollow-eyed at the walls of a manufactured home.

Although the story is more optimistic than her 2010 thriller, as with Winter’s Bone, Granik presents a nuanced, thought-provoking story about life on the fringes, and along the way, discovers and nurtures another star-caliber young talent in McKenzie with Leave No Trace

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

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Brandy McDonnell

Brandy McDonnell writes features and reviews movies, music, events and the arts for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma's statewide newspaper, and NewsOK.com, the state's largest news Web site. Raised on a farm near Lindsay, Okla., she started her journalism career in seventh grade, when she was elected reporter for her school's 4-H Club. Taking her duties seriously, she began submitting stories to The Lindsay News, and worked for the local weekly through high school. She attended Oklahoma State University, where she worked for The Daily O'Collegian and earned her journalism degree with honors. She worked for three years at small Oklahoma dailies The Edmond Sun and Shawnee News-Star. In 2002, she joined The Oklahoman as a features reporter, writing about movies, the arts, events, families and nonprofits. She moved to The Oklahoman's entertainment desk in 2007. In 2004, she won a prestigious Journalism Fellowship in Child & Family Policy from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Along with her membership in AWFJ, she also is a founding member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. Brandy writes The Week In Women blog for AWFJ.org.