Leave No Trace comes from the pen of Debra Granik and her regular writing partner Anne Rosellini, marking a second literary adaptation for the pair after Winter’s Bone. If that film helped launch the career of Jennifer Lawrence back in 2010, expect great things too from young New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie. Along with a terrific Ben Foster, McKenzie is the beating heart of Leave No Trace, a quietly spectacular story of survival and unspoken mental destruction.
Whereas Winter’s Bone was inexorably concerned with an absent father, it is curious that the absent mother of Leave No Trace remains almost entirely so: ‘I wish I could remember her’. Once again, this is a story loaded with the implications of challenged paternity on a young woman. Maternal want is a crucial theme, woven into the film’s fabric, if not its script. Based on Peter Rock’s award-winning novel My Abandonment – itself drawn from reality – the film explores the isolation of a PTSD stricken Will (Foster) and his daughter Tom (McKenzie) in Oregon and their many reintegrations into society.
Gorgeous cinematography and a score of natural life sees the film open in a forest so overwhelmed by emerald tones that one might confuse it with the Amazonian rainforest. A sophomore shot of two luminescent spider webs will be echoed at the film’s close but, at this stage, is beautiful in its own right. It is in this Eden that we find Will and Tom – the father and daughter lighting fires beneath a canopy and amid a makeshift campsite. Like the clan of 2016’s Captain Fantastic – a similar work in several regards – the pair are wilderness nomads. They visit the city – a loud and sprawling metropolis – sporadically for food yet are untouched by its modern ways: ‘I’ve always been able to communicate before all that’. We don’t know why they’re there but, goodness, we want to.
Even when little is occurring in terms of action – one sequence seeing Will and Tom get lost, despite not knowing where they are going – Leave No Trace is enticingly compelling. The title alludes to the need for the characters to untraceably relocate from site to site but it’s a slow burn that eventually reveals their motivation. Along the way, Will rejects the aid of social services and becomes restless when he is forced to into any status of settlement. In contrast to his daughter’s frequent questioning, inspired by her lust for life, Will speaks monosyllabically and gives little away. ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ Asks Tom. ‘What’s yours?’ He replies. As yet unrecognised for his talents, Foster continues to excel here, following last year’s dazzling Hell or High Water. Once again, his is a performance that speaks vociferously via little dialogue.
McKenzie, likewise, is powerfully nuanced in the role. With a bit part in Peter Jackson’s final Hobbit film to her name, this young actor is surely one to watch. Tom is as close as Granik offers to a surrogate in the film; it is through her that we trespass through their world but it is never clear just how much she already knows. With her doey eyes and quavering bottom lip McKenzie brings her character to life in a way that feels emphatically human. She is an adolescent, certainly, but no troubled caricature. Tom’s experience has rendered her both old and young for her years, as can be witnessed in her devotion to natural life. Animals have a fascinating symbolic and literal presence in Leave No Trace, hinting towards layers of nuance that no viewer is ever likely to entirely decipher.
If acting is the backbone of Granik’s film, its flesh is a composite of strong production values and a emotive soundtrack – one both diegetic and not, to immersive effect. As a whole, the film is a beauty; in its minutiae, it is enchanting. Larger themes of human will power, solidarity and separation are echoed in visual flourishes. If the film appears minimalistic, this is extraordinary camouflage. Here is a film in which the duct tape patching of a leaking canvas marks both a pivotal foreshadowing of coming fraction and signifier of a heartbreaking truth. Those who seek exposition may leave disappointed by the subtle art before them.