Sundance London 2018: Leave No Trace Review
As good as Debra Granik's Winter's Bone may be, it is mostly remembered for launching the career of Jennifer Lawrence. In the eight years since the release of her second film Granik has only released one more, the highly rated documentary Stray Dog. All of her previous films to date have taken us into the lives of poor, white working class America and her latest effort, Leave No Trace - which premiered at Sundance in January - burrows further into the same territory following a father and daughter living on the fringes of society.
We find Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) contently going about their daily routine within the perimeter of the camp they call home buried deep in the woods of an urban Oregon park. It's an existence never explicitly explained although it becomes clear that Will's inability to cope with P.T.S.D. has sent him off grid. We're never told how long this has been going on but it's enough to feel acceptable to young Tom.
Thirteen is the start of a phase in life where we begin to understand our place in the world and discover the things that shape adulthood. Tom is deeply loyal to her father and Will nothing less than a loving, protective parent, despite the isolation he has forced upon his daughter. But that changes when they are picked up by the park rangers and forced into housed accommodation. Tom gets a taste of life under a fixed roof, sleeping on a mattress and striking up friendships, but Will's condition can't be cured overnight and despite the state handcuffing him with his legal responsibilities he's eager to get them back on the road again.
Granik’s film is based on Peter Rock’s book, My Abandonment and the way in which she takes the time to construct her characters has its own novelistic quality. We know that Will shouldn’t be selfishly raising his daughter like this and deep down we can see he does too, but either his mental state is preventing him from facing reality or he simply refuses to admit defeat to a consumerist society. It's a state of mind that would have been easy to demonise, to stage the destruction of their bond to dramatic effect but Granik is far more interested in the grey areas that make human life so endlessly fascinating.
Although the film is emotionally affecting neither the cast nor Granik are interested in sensationalising the grim reality of the situation with any melodrama. Foster gives an empathetic performance that internalises the demons of war haunting him through the night without allowing them to completely dominate Will’s persona.
When he’s suddenly packing his bags again just when Tom has found some stability we can only despair but feel equally as sympathetic about his emotional state. “We can still think our own thoughts,” he says to Tom when he feels the state has robbed them of their natural independence, but Will remains on the run literally and figuratively from the images stained on his memory,
Yet, for all the experience working around her it is newcomer McKenzie that manages to leave the biggest impression with a mature performance that belies her age (she’s only 17). Not only does she bear more than a passing physical resemblance to a young Jodie Foster but the depth of emotion she gives to her dialogue is quite remarkable.
The journey of discovery Tom embarks upon once she comes into contact with others who have a connection with animals – be it rabbits, bees, or dogs – reveals a world not previously experienced with her father. McKenzie brings a subtlety to the role that not only makes Tom endearing but intelligent and confident enough to express her curiosity.
There’s a tenderness and sense of community spirit that gives Leave No Trace so much warmth, despite the hard road father and daughter have to tread. It ends in such a heartfelt and impactful manner that it is almost impossible to finish dry eyed yet it feels like a natural conclusion that makes logical sense for the characters involved. Granik has made a wonderfully humanistic film that speaks to everyone because there are times when we’re all lost in our surroundings. But it’s the good in us and in those we come into contact with that make it all seem worthwhile.
For further information about Sundance London 2018 visit here.