Leave No Trace is a fantastic independent film from writer/director Debra Granik. She was most known for Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout role, prior to Leave No Trace. Leave No Trace was snubbed from most of the big awards in 2018, but it collected many awards and nominations at various film festivals. It has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was also the first time many people would have seen Thomasin McKenzie, now of Jojo Rabbit fame. Thomasin seems to be great at playing the intelligent, self-aware, girl in hiding due to powers beyond her control.
Thomasin plays Tom opposite Ben Foster as her father Will. Will is a war veteran and single father. He is struggling with PTSD and feels most comfortable living freely on the land. He has raised Tom to be just as good at wilderness survival as he is. While Tom hasn’t been in a formal school for a significant period, Will ensures she is also learning what she is missing in school. When tested, she is more advanced than her classmates would be if she attended school.
When Tom and Will are discovered they have to assimilate into normal society. The situation never sits well with Will, but Tom begins to develop a friendship and gets a glimpse at what a normal life may be. Will is stuck in his ways, never able to be comfortable indoors or tied to one place. Tom begins to enjoy comforts she had not had in a long while, if ever. As the movie progresses the father-daughter relationship develops more conflict. Tom gets a taste of freedom, by living in a house, and wants more, while her father desperately tries to preserve the freedom he has established by living in the woods.
Through Tom, more so than Will, we explore Will’s PTSD. She has a full understanding of what Will needs but struggles to accommodate it. Eventually, something must break. The film begs the question, what do you do when you have tried all you can to save someone? If you love something let it go? Or should you fight, to your own detriment, to help someone? It is a story that I am sure many people, particularly veteran families struggle with. The movie was loosely based on the Peter Rock novel “My Abandonment” living and influenced by several other books about veterans' experiences with PTSD.
The beauty of the Pacific Northwest is brought to the screen amazingly well for a low-budget independent film. The lush, green, rain-soaked forest is almost magical. Nature is a supporting character that Tom and Will must struggle against. You will want to hop on a plane and go hiking around Portland after seeing this film. The scenes at night and during the setting sun are technically excellent. The lighting mimics exactly what it looks like when your eyes have adjusted in the woods. Game of Thrones could have taken some queues on how to shoot at night.
This movie is brilliant. Debra Granik needs more recognition than she has been getting. This was one of the best 2018 films I have seen. The average rating for female-directed movies that I see is far higher than male-directed movies. Debra gets compelling and emotional performances out of both Foster and McKenzie. She also got a career jumpstarting performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Leave No Trace is an intense exploration of mental health. This movie will make you think about those you love and what our veterans are going through. I hope it will encourage you to seek out more wonderful independent films.