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Leave No Trace ***

Minimal drama is a moving story of a father and daughter. 

Is it worth $10? Yes  

At the start of “Leave No Trace,” Will (Ben Foster) and his 13 year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) peacefully co-exist in their home near Portland, Oregon. She’s home-schooled and academically advanced for her age, knows how to cook and provide for herself, and seems happy. To many, this is what a well-adjusted, admittedly socially awkward teenager should look like.

The problem, according to social services, is that they live in a tent in the woods, and are illegally occupying public land. When Will is arrested their situation changes drastically, which prompts two thoughts: 1) Why is anyone telling anyone how to raise their healthy and happy child? And 2) The “system” is rescuing a child who doesn’t need rescuing. If Will and Tom choose and want to live like this, why not leave them alone?



Director Debra Granik’s film is neither as dramatic as this makes it sound, nor as intent on social commentary as you might think. It’s a bit minimalist, actually, which is okay because it hooks us from the start as its characters wordlessly, symbiotically work together. Reports indicate that in pre-production Foster sat with Granik to remove 40 percent of the dialog to allow the audience to see and infer what it needs to know rather than be told. The result allows the father-daughter bond to appear even stronger given all that’s unspoken yet shared between them, which earns our empathy. It also allows viewers to capture more of Foster’s eyes, face and body language, and it’s a credit to his performance that we understand how he’s feeling, and usually what he’s thinking, each step of the way. Relatedly, McKenzie is a revelation here, also expressing quite a bit with little overt emotion. If the film catches on, it will make her a star.

If there’s a shortcoming in the script, which Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) co-wrote with Anne Rossellini and is based on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, it’s that Will’s background is underdeveloped. Aside from a quick line about his military service and his wife/Tom’s mother, we learn little about why he chooses to raise his daughter this way, and because the film prompts us to root for them to live undisturbed, it’s a question that should be answered.

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This does not, thankfully, detract from being intrigued by the narrative. The father-daughter relationship is loving and never inappropriate. It may remind some of “Captain Fantastic,” for which Viggo Mortensen was a Best Actor nominee in 2016, but that film reveled in its eccentricity while “Leave No Trace” wants no part of such quirks. The closest it gets comes as Tom meets a boy her age and develops an interest in rabbits. One day she stays out too late, and her father doesn’t have a phone, so she couldn’t call to tell him she’s okay. A lesser movie, one less confident in its convictions, would’ve surrounded the scenario with immense drama in order to maximize (read: manipulate) audience engagement.

Instead, Granik keeps the story simple and understated, and in doing so it remains realistic, truthful and honest from start to finish. Kudos to Granik and co. for knowing what type of movie “Leave No Trace” is, and how to tell it best.

Did you know?
Eagle Fern Park and Squaw Mountain Ranch in Oregon were used for the forest scenes.