Understated but undeniably powerful, “Leave No Trace” drew my attention right from its very first moment and then engaged me more through its intimate depiction of the strong relationship between its two main characters. As closely living with each other in their solitary world, they are happy and contented together, but there suddenly comes a moment of change, and the movie phlegmatically but empathetically depicts how their relationship is gradually affected by that.
During the first act of the movie, we observe the isolated daily life of Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who have lived together somewhere in a national forest park located in Oregon. Although he does not tell much about himself, we come to gather that Will is a war veteran who has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it is apparent that he prefers to live quietly in this remote area without getting any stress from the outside world. Except when they need to buy some food and other necessary things, he and his daughter stick to their self-sufficient lifestyle, and the movie does a good job of vividly presenting their way of life on the screen. As watching them going through their daily routines in and around their camp hidden inside the forest, we come to sense many years of life between them, and we also come to feel more of how much they are attached to each other.
While his daughter has never had any formal education for years, Will has taught her pretty well. Besides how to read and write, Tom has learned many other things from her father for living in forest along with him, and she is a smart and curious girl as shown from when she spends her free time with a big encyclopedia book.
And that is the moment when she happens to make a minor mistake, which unfortunately leads to the discovery of their camp by the park police. While Will is subsequently arrested because it is illegal to reside inside the park, Tom is sent away to a facility, and Will sees that he has no choice but to try to readjust himself to the outside world for being with his daughter again. After going through some evaluation period, he and his daughter eventually reunite, and they are soon taken together to a local tree farm where he is going to work for supporting them.
They certainly feel awkward in their new environment, but there are some generous people willing to help them. While the social workers assigned to them are kind and generous, the owner of the tree farm provides a cozy place where Tom and Will can stay for a while, and Tom later has a pretty nice time when she happens to encounter a cute rabbit and its owner.
As enjoying more of the outside world, Tom begins to be drawn to a lifestyle more stable than her former one, but her father becomes more nervous and restless as days go by. He clearly wants to go back to his former lifestyle, but his daughter becomes less willing to do that, and that creates subtle but considerable tension between them.
I will not describe here in details on how their drama is developed further later in the movie, but I can tell you that the movie keeps engaging us via a number of intimate moments generated between them, and director Debra Granick, who also adapted Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment” for her film with Anne Rosellini, deserves praises for her thoughtful handling of mood, story, and characters. While the story effortlessly moves from one narrative point to another along with its main characters, cinematographer Michael McDonough effectively establishes the palpably realistic atmosphere on the screen, and I was particularly impressed by how deftly he captures the clear and crisp ambience of the forests shown in the film.
The movie is also firmly anchored by two good lead performers who give two of the best performances of this year. While never overstating his character’s personal demons, Ben Foster, who dials down himself from his usual level of intensity here in this film, is often sad and heartbreaking in his nuanced performance, and he is especially good when his character flatly answers to questions given to him as a part of psychological evaluation. Although the movie watches him from the distance, we can see how uncomfortable Will is during that scene, and we come to have more understanding of his damaged state of mind.
On the opposite, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young New Zealand performer who previously played a minor role in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (2014), holds her place well besides her co-performer while giving an equally compelling performance which is definitely one of the notable breakthrough performances of this year. Thanks to McKenzie’s flawless natural acting, her character’s gradual growth along the story is convincing from the beginning to the end, and it surely helps that she and Foster has a natural onscreen chemistry between them.
“Leave No Trace” is the third feature film from Granik, who previously made “Down to the Bone” (2004) and “Winter’s Bone” (2010), an Oscar-nominated film which gave Jennifer Lawrence a career breakthrough. Like “Winter’s Bone”, the movie is quite unforgettable in many aspects, and it confirms to us again that Granik is one of the most interesting American filmmakers of our time. In short, this is one of the best films of this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.