‘Leave No Trace’: Hauntingly Beautiful Tale Of Belonging

In Debra Granik’s first feature film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, traumatised war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living illegally in a huge public park in Oregon. When the authorities find them they are forced to accept a new, more conventional way of life that threatens to tear them apart.

What is palpable about Leave No Trace is the sense of Trauma. Something inside of Will does not work and it causes great tension between him and the only person who understands him, Tom. Granik clearly has an eye for young talent, as Thomasin Mckenzie is extraordinary as Tom. As she navigates between survival in a tough environment and adapting to her father’s complete aversion to attachment, she is a forceful presence. Her great strength as she stands up to the authority figures around her is equaled by her endearing vulnerability. She has a childlike fascination with the world that has been denied to her. McKenzie is a very empathetic lead.

There is not a trace of Ben Foster’s capacity for powerful aggression in his role as Will. He is a fragile but gentle soul. It’s plain to see the pain he feels in his interactions with the ordinary world, as is the peace he experiences when alone with his daughter. In the woods we see him confident, knowledgeable and capable. His world is fascinating, revealed to us through the eyes of his daughter. Their routine of procuring and preparing food and alluding detection is immediately arresting. Once removed, the sweetness of his new mundane existence is entirely lost on him, but charms his daughter.

There’s a graceful naturalism to Granik’s frame. She and cinematographer Michael McDonough capture rural Middle America in soft light and rich detail. The little den the two have made for themselves feels every bit the home that they consider it to be. Once they are captured the frame becomes claustrophobic, capturing them in between rows of computers, the intrusive questioning occurring in tight spaces. The home they are given remains empty, cold and in stark contrast to their homely little den.

One of the most touching aspects of the film is the simple humanity of everyone the pair encounters. From the well-meaning but mindlessly oppressive social services who threaten to separate them to the kind people they experience on the fringes of society, everybody has a warm spark of humanity within them. The kindness shown to them by the members of the commune they find in the woods is deeply moving. This is a tender portrayal of people unwilling or unable to leave in mainstream society.

It was worth the long wait for Debra Granik’s third feature film. Once again she has presented a poetic and humanist insight into the lives of those who live on the fringes of American society.

Five Stars

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