A haunting film that is as important for what it barely tells us as to what we experience, “Leave No Trace” is likely to turn up on best lists for this year. It has been directed by Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) from a screenplay that she wrote with Anne Rosellini from Peter Rock’s novel, “My Abandonment.” The story, enhanced by exquisite nature scenes in Oregon, keeps one glued with its quiet progression that feeds our hope for a happy resolution.
At the outset we are introduced to a father and his teenage daughter living in the woods with a strong, loving bond with each other. The father, Will, is played stoically by Ben Foster. The daughter, Tom, Is portrayed with total naturalism by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, whose quiet innocence and composure are admirably effective. Her schooling has been entirely in the hands of her father.
Their lifestyle is interrupted when they are found, questioned and forcibly brought to be sheltered by the Veteran’s Administration, separated for a time, but soon reunited and given a place to live under supervision. By that point we know that Will is one of those vets suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, although nothing is revealed about his war experience. At one point when Tom is going through some of her dad’s belongings there is a quick glimpse of a newspaper clipping referring to vets trying to take matters into their own hands.
But Will can’t be confined and kept from his desire to live apart from society. He leads his daughter, whom we see gradually wanting to savor aspects of the world that she has been missing, to escape together and take to the forest again. A crisis brews when Will suffers a serious injury, including a battered leg. Will and Tom are aided by kind folks who lead communal lives.
How long can Tom endure the life of living in the woods with its dangers and isolation and continue to lovingly follow her dad with total obedience? The most telling line in the film is delivered by Tom in an ultimate confrontation, when she says to her father, “What’s wrong with you is not wrong with me.”
In its quiet way “Leave No Trace” is a movie about results of war without seeing war itself. Will is among the ranks of those who have returned from fighting with grave stress conditions that can result in odd behavior, inclinations toward suicide or other psychological damage that urgently require care.
The excellent acting throughout and the sensitive direction via wise understatement, coupled with the film’s superb cinematography by Michael McDonough, create a strong impression. In its unique way “Leave No Trace” is deeply moving and can leave a lasting impression. A Bleecker Street release. Reviewed June 29, 2018.