Leave No Trace is a complex, haunting, quiet but minimalist effort. This is director Debra Granik’s follow up to her Oscar-nominated effort Winter’s Bone (which not only was seven years ago but also helped break out Jennifer Lawrence to the public). The movie is based off a novel by Peter Rock called Abandonment and follows a US veteran and his growing daughter as they live off the grid in a forest. After being discovered by authorities the pair has to confront the realities of integrating into normal society; a prospect that both are skeptical of.
Leave No Trace is a visual movie. It doesn’t over-explain; the dialogue is kept to a small conversation level with little exposition to the backgrounds of the characters. Granik trusts the audience to pick up everything they need through small shots of newspaper clippings, reactions from the actors and the lingering pauses between the spoken word. In that, Leave No Trace doesn’t over dramatize a story that could very easily have deuterated into a movie with a lot of big scenes of emotional anguish and forced drama. This isn’t to say that approach can’t work but that approach can go off the rails pretty easily as well. Leave No Trace keeps the drama quiet, like the forest locations that is wonderfully secluded and equality well photographed by cinematographer Michael McDonough.
At the center of the movie is the two lead actors, Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. The pair have a warm and intimate father, daughter dynamic. Both actors give some of the finest performances of the year as well. Foster has always been an overlooked actor who many times does tend to get overused as the “crazy” loose cannon of the movie. He is good in those types of movies but Leave No Trace allows him to show a softer more vulnerable side. His rough exterior attempts to mask the pain of the post-traumatic stress that he endures as a result of his service. It has the appearance of reality and can be a heartbreaking performance to experience.
Most will be talking about young Thomasin and with good reason. Like Granik’s discovery of Jennifer Lawrence, she has found a great young actress in the making. Thomasin has the task of matching Foster, being capable and believable as someone who would adjust to their way of life but also begin to find solace in a new life that she wants to carve out for herself. She pulls off a character that is a little socially awkward but still has a strength and intelligence about her.
Leave No Trace deals with the issues that many veterans deal with to this very day. The movie doesn’t tell a story that preaches to you about the issues but presents a story that simply shows it. Leave No Trace is a movie that shows but doesn’t tell. Much of your enjoyment of this movie will be your preference in style. As someone who enjoys a wide variety of styles, I found myself very much in tune with Debra Granik’s direction making the ending every bit as emotional as it needs to be. It isn’t a hard ending to dream up but it is a difficult one to pull off. If you’re in tune with the movie’s quiet nature then this will draw you in and never let you go.
Leave No Trace is an excellent movie, one of the finest I have seen this year. The quiet attention to detail makes for a rewarding and emotionally engaging watch. The young actress Thomasin McKenzie is a brilliant find on Debra Granik’s part and Ben Foster turns in one of his best performances. Some may not like its low key manner but those willing to jump on board with Debra Granik’s direction will find a great and worthwhile story told.