Movie Review: ‘Leave No Trace’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) eke out a non-traditional, yet deeply fulfilling life in a large wooded park on the edge of Portland. Their time foraging for wild mushrooms and keeping their shelter in good repair is broken up by the occasional trip into the city for additional supplies, or for Will to fill another clutch of prescriptions at the local VA hospital. He shares these meds with a larger encampment of homeless veterans on the edge of the park, whose tent city appears to have a tacit approval from the powers that be.

The father and daughter lead a more uncertain existence, though. In order to preserve it they go to great pains to avoid detection by park officials and hikers, yet when a jogger accidentally spots Tom near one of the trails, the police detain Will and take them both away for questioning. Despite no formal schooling, Tom tests ahead of her age, and there is no abuse that compels the authorities to separate them. A social worker places them on a Christmas tree farm instead, with regular employment for Will and the chance to attend public school for Tom. Will chafes at the relocation, his post-traumatic stress exacerbated by the sound of the helicopters used to move large bundles of trees around the farm. Before long he and Tom are running again, seeking the kind of home they once had in the park.

Excellent performances by Foster and McKenzie anchor a quiet, almost melancholy film. Foster embodies a man clearly struggling against the demons of his past without resorting to obvious theatrics. His warmth and openness with his daughter immediately descend into a practiced politeness edged with distrust and tension when dealing with others. It’s incredibly easy to feel sympathy for Will, even more so when he’s forced to set aside the lifestyle that serves as a coping mechanism, even when it’s clear that no amount of love can make up for the experiences Tom misses out on growing up as a nomad.

McKenzie fares even better, if that’s possible. She finds a joining of innocence and wisdom in Tom that often humbles or confounds adults other than Will. Her desire for a more traditional home and childhood could ring as whiny, selfish even, but instead manifest as the serious demands of her father’s equal.

Director Debra Granik (who co-wrote the script with Anne Rosellini) challenges her viewers to consider the lifestyle of her main characters as a symptom of Will’s illness, rather than the root cause of his and Tom’s struggles. She makes good use of the Pacific Northwest wilderness, featuring it as an environment capable of offering hardship as readily as comfort. This latest feature film continues in the excellent tradition of Winter’s Bone by showcasing a young girl’s strength and the complications of loving someone who can’t always return that devotion in the way that one needs.

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