Remember a quirky little movie from 2016 called Captain Fantastic? It starred Viggo Mortensen as a father of six. They have been living in the forests with their vintage bus for who knows how long. Once the mother dies, they step into a scary place known as the “real world.” Earning its cult status since it premiered at Sundance, Mortensen saves that uneven movie from being a total disaster.
Eight years later, Leave No Trace marks the return for writer/director Debra Granik after 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which introduced Jennifer Lawrence into stardom. It might have a similar concept to Captain Fantastic (considering they are both set in Pacific Northwest), but this is a much superior film.
Based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, Will (Ben Foster) is an Army veteran suffering from PTSD, who lives with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, in her first major role) deep in Forest Park, just outside Portland, Oregon. There is always something to do; they gather kindling to make campfire, read books, play board games, and cook food. They keep tarps overhead and sleep in sleeping bags to keep warm. The only time they go into town is when Will sells his prescription drugs to earn money for groceries and propane.
One day, Tom spots a jogger. Soon enough, the authorities separate them for questioning. Tom is placed in a detention center for young girls. Will struggles to answer true/false questions on the computer. Together, they struggle coming terms with a new environment.
Who knows why Granik waited so long to release another movie. But–she picked the perfect time to release this movie. Along with co-writer Anne Rosellini, she never shies away from her love of rural America (Winter’s Bone was set in the Missouri Ozarks) and nature. Kudos to Michael McDonough’s cinematography, the vibrant greens of the forest invite the audience to a different world that Will and Tom live in. There are no villains in the story at all. The authorities and Social Services treat the two with respect. Eventually, they help them relocate to place they might call home.
From 3:10 to Yuma to Hell or High Water, Foster has never been better as the demanding father learning her daughter the ways of survival. He must learn how to live with a roof over their heads. While he prefers to head back to the forest, Tom, on the other hands, resists living in this new environment. Unlike most kids her age, she never relies on a cell phone to communicate. She walks to a farmhouse nearby where she meets a boy who participates in 4-H meetings. She makes prized possessions such as a seahorse pendant necklace and miniature toy horses. McKenzie’s performance is truly one-of-a-kind, and one to look out for in the future.
With its PG-rating, Leave No Trace is a mature story about father and daughter living in a society unlike their own, which will more likely appeal to teens and adults. It’s subtle. It’s powerful. It’s intense. It’s devastating. It’s one of the year’s best films!