Directed by Debra Granik
Starring – Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeffrey Rifflard
The Plot – Will (Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (McKenzie), have lived off the grid for years in the forests of Portland, Oregon. When their idyllic life is shattered, both are put into social services. After clashing with their new surroundings, Will and Tom set off on a harrowing journey back to their wild homeland.
Rated PG for thematic material throughout
– This is a beautifully shot film, documenting the Oregon countryside with such an evocative colorful palate of vivacious strokes. The natural lighting is a meaningful choice for authenticity, but it’s in the yellow sunlight bleeding through the green of the trees that gives the backgrounds that stained glass effect that only comes naturally when you’re shooting a majority of your film outside.
– As for the work of Foster and McKenzie, they are asked to be in 100% of the scenes, and that dependency really drives home the work of these two polished actors carrying the movie. These performances never include those long-winded diatribes that feed into Academy recognition, but rather they are praised for feel synthetic to the human approach. Most of their charm is that they don’t ever feel like characters, but rather real people, and both respective actors bounce off of each other with the father/daughter honesty that radiates the chemistry between them.
– What I love about the exposition is that it never feels forced or convenient to the unfolding knowledge that we are learning about Will, in particular. This requires audiences to hang on to literally every single conversation between the two characters, if they wish to learn more about them. Even then, the film leaves plenty to abstraction, choosing not to follow these bombshell droppings within the three act structure like we’re used to. Granik is wise enough to not have to force-feed the audience these vivid details, instead spreading out these details of truth that speak volumes to her trust in us to adapt.
– Poignancy in parenting. One great debate frequently revolved around in this film is the spotty definition of the terms “Provider” and “Providing”. Through the ventures that feature many ups and downs between these two characters, we as audience are left with plenty of instances for an enlightening conversation, with no side ever being clearly defined for being wrong. Will believes he is right because it’s worked this way for so long between them, and the Children’s Services believe they are right because they act within the best interests of the child. The best part is that no matter where your allegiance lies on this issue, Granik as a screenwriter throws many wrenches along the way that are sure to keep you updating your stance from one side to the next.
– Deep beneath this family drama that engulfs the entirety of this film, is a maturing coming-of-age narrative that develops terrifically during the third act. These developments certainly speak wonders to the fragility of adolescence, and just how tragically some kids are forced to grow up far too quickly. I took great empathy towards this aspect, because it is in those aspects that we can’t control that feel the most damning to those they sneak up on, and it all leads to a bittersweet finale that reflects the miles that these two have traveled.
– Like Granik’s earlier work in ‘Winter’s Bone’, I find it quite indulging how the environments in her films present themselves as an integral member of the cast, allowing her to play with volumes for such an immersive experience. What this does is allow us to soak up the atmospheres whole not only in sight, but in sound. There’s excellent capturing of forest sounds like birds and branches rubbing up against one another that you could almost close your eyes and imagine yourself right there with the protagonists.
– The comparisons with 2016’s ‘Captain Fantastic’ are inevitable, and while I think this is the weaker of the two films by comparison, ‘Leave No Trace’ is more appealing on a personal measurement of character study that the former just can’t get close enough to. Because this movie only has two central characters, we are able to focus more prominently on the dynamic that eventually shapes the emotions that each are feeling. This kind of story I feel works better with less characters for the danger and isolation that we feel for them, making their situation feel more bleak upon dissection.
– Likewise to Granik’s admirable patience within her current masterpiece, the musical score from Dickon Hinchliffe also has great restrain in its presence throughout. The musical inclusion is certainly there, most notably when a scene requires self-reflection, but it does so in a way that never intrudes or soils the somber deliveries or required focus that remains faithful to your investment in the characters. Hinchliffe instead serves as more of an underlying current of steady keys that never needs to push the volume to eleven to maximize a scene.
– It pains me to say that even though this film succeeds on its own merits, it’s a difficult recommendation because of plodding pacing that eventually catches up. Much of this fault is due to redundancy in the material that shortcuts any kind of tension that this film so desperately requires, but the overall lack of a central antagonist certainly shouldn’t be understated. Without that continuous presence hot on the heels of this duo, the film gives up on an early included subplot that just kind of dissolves without resolve.
– While I mentioned earlier that this film can contribute more of its time to two characters, as opposed to a big cast, the film kind of squanders the psychological presence of the movie by never delving into Will’s head in the way we need for context. I was never lost or confused by the brief details delivered in the film, but I wouldn’t have been opposed to some flashback sequences involving the Mother in this family, no matter how forced or cliche that may sound. To me, I couldn’t escape this feeling of a bombshell delivery coming throughout the movie, but it never comes, and we are left to put together Will’s pieces without ever having a look at the box for the bigger picture.