Leave No Trace is one of those rare movies that scores 100% on the Rotten Tomatoes website that averages critics reviews. It scores nearly as high with audiences. It is a stunning film, beautifully directed and acted by the two main characters, who are barely off the screen.
Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), have lived off the grid for years in the forests of Portland, Oregon. When their idyllic life is shattered, both are put into social services care. After clashing with their new surroundings, Will and Tom set off on a harrowing journey back to their wild homeland. The film is directed by Debra Granik from a script adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from Peter Rock’s book My Abandonment.
Leave No Trace features two of the year’s best performances. For character actor Ben Foster, a familiar face who has appeared in many films, this is an opportunity to show that he can shine in a lead role as well as a supporting one. Foster’s performance is carefully modulated. He portrays Will as an obviously damaged individual who is in complete control. He rarely emotes but his deep affection for his daughter is evident. New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is Foster’s match. She embraces the contradictions of her character with strength and passion, showing not only Tom’s deep connection with her father but her desire to spread her wings and grow beyond him. The character is conflicted and the actress portrays that conflict perfectly.
Debra Granik is best-known for Winter’s Bone, the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. She has probably done the same for Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie – giving an insightful, emotionally honest performance, with the camera often focussed on her face. Leave No Trace is not showy. It moves slowly enough to breathe but not so slowly that it seems to drag. The photography of the wilderness is evocative and the contrast with “modern life” (as shown when Will and Tom take an air bus) is stark.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Leave No Trace is how it shows what life might be like without the trappings of modern technology. Will and Tom live without electronics. They have a propane stove but rarely use it. They live off the land and can survive regardless of the climate. They are resourceful and seem happy. It’s a reminder about what really matters in life. By design or accident, no human will leave behind a lasting footprint. Whether the CEO of a major corporation or living in a tent, all traces of existence will eventually vanish. Life is about evolving. It’s about finding the path forward. Leave No Trace is an honest chronicle of one such instance. Occasionally uplifting and sometimes heartbreaking, it is nothing less than sublime.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall