Critics are loving LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). The film is being called the best reviewed movie of the summer.
Allow me to bring the film back to earth a bit.
Now, while I enjoyed LEAVE NO TRACE, I didn’t love it, mostly because its slow-paced story lacked the necessary intensity to keep me riveted throughout. That being said, LEAVE NO TRACE is still a good movie.
LEAVE NO TRACE tells the story of a father Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who live in the woods in Oregon, and they live there because they choose to. They are happy there, and as the film opens, we observe them in their routine, enjoying a simple life in nature, albeit working hard to keep their shelter water-proof, collect rain water for drinking, and cover their tracks so they are not discovered.
The other reason they live in the woods is Will suffers from PTSD, a result from his time serving in the military. He simply has a hard time being around people and feels better living in the woods.
When a jogger sees Tom in the woods, the Park Rangers and the police are called in, and they arrest Will and also bring Tom into custody. Once social services determines that there’s nothing strange going on and that Tom is not in danger, they release them, but tell them they can no longer live where they were because those woods are part of a National Forest, owned by the government, and the law states that people can’t live on land owned by someone else.
A man Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober) having seen their story in the news, offers to set up Will and Tom with a modest home in return for Will’s help on his tree farm. What follows is the story of how Will and Tom try to adjust to a new life in a home not of their choosing and of their ongoing journey to find their place in the world as Will realizes he cannot function in society like other people.
LEAVE NO TRACE takes a sharp look at what constitutes a home and questions why it is that people simply can’t live where they want to, even if it’s in the woods. The film opens with such a deliberate pace showing Will and Tom’s peaceful existence, it easily makes the case that this lifestyle shouldn’t be disturbed. But it is, as there are laws to follow in society, and as a result Will and Tom are evicted from their “home.”
While I enjoyed the deliberate pace early on, the problem is as the film moves along, the pace never changes. We follow Will and Tom from one living experience to another, and the intensity pretty much stays the same. Low key. Very low-key.
The other story, and frankly the one that drives the movie along, is the relationship between Will and Tom. They love each other very much. This is established early on and the bond they share remains strong throughout. However, whereas Will understands he can’t live with other people, Tom begins to realize through their ongoing experiences that she can. Not only that, but she begins to enjoy being around other people, leading up to the point where she’s not sure she wants to continue following her father any more.
Writer/director Debra Granik has made a thought-provoking and visually pleasing movie that takes its time telling its story of two people, a father and a daughter, trying to live on their own terms, even while the daughter begins to learn that her interests are changing from that of her father’s. And the shots of the Oregon woods are peaceful and soothing. Five minutes in, and I was ready to pitch a tent, and I’m not an outdoors person.
Another problem I had with LEAVE NO TRACE is that while I appreciated its story, it didn’t resonate with me emotionally as much as I expected it to. The film is low-key, and that pretty much sums up how it played on my emotions. There really aren’t any powerful scenes that pack a punch, no gut wrenching decisions or plights. Just calm measured migration.
The best part of LEAVE NO TRACE and the main reason to see this one are the performances by the two leads, Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.
I’ve been a fan of Foster’s for a while ever since I first saw him in 3:10 TO YUMA (2007). He’s been impressive in nearly every film I’ve seen him in, usually playing some pretty intense characters, in films like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), THE MECHANIC (2011), and HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) to name just a few.
Foster sheds some of that intensity here in LEAVE NO TRACE, and like the rest of the film, his performance is a bit more subtle than we’re used to seeing, but it’s no less effective. We never learn what exactly happened to Will, but Foster’s performance makes it clear that at some point in his life he suffered from a trauma that he has yet to recover from.
As much as I enjoy Foster, the performance of the movie belongs to Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Will’s daughter Tom. While her performance is subtle as well— don’t expect screaming, angry teenage angst— she creates such a sincere, watchable character in Tom that in spite of the film’s slow pace, I never grew tired of watching her.
She has a way of speaking that captures Tom’s innocence and loyalty to her dad, yet remains perfectly natural as she begins to realize that unlike her dad she needs other people in her life. I wouldn’t be surprised if come Oscar time McKenzie gets a shout out. She’s very good.
The other thing I liked about this story was the positive way it depicted ordinary citizens, a welcomed sight in this day and age. Everyone who Will and Tom meet treats them with respect and dignity. I kept expecting someone to try to take advantage of them, but they don’t. And this might be the most powerful part of the entire movie, the way these every day folks treat Will and his daughter. They all seem to recognize that Will suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and treat him accordingly.
Director Debra Granik and fellow screenwriter Anne Rosellini should be commended for taking this route in their screenplay, which was based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, and for creating characters who function as a strong support network for the two strangers in their lives. It reaffirms some faith in humanity.
But in terms of emotion in LEAVE NO TRACE, there’s simply not a lot of it. While I was intellectually intrigued about Will and Tom’s plight, I was never emotionally invested in their journey. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them, to be sure, but most of the time, what was happening to them was so low-key it barely registered on the intensity meter.
LEAVE NO TRACE is a subtle look into the lives of two people, a father and a daughter, who enjoyed living off the grid until they were told they had to move. It then follows them on their journey from one living situation to another, telling the story of how their relationship changes.
It’s also a quiet look into the life of a person with PTSD, and of a teenage girl living with a person with PTSD, as well as an honest inquiry into just what it is that makes something a home.
Thought-provoking to be sure, but as intense as quietly collecting rain water for a cool morning drink in the forest.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.