Movie Review: Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is a drama about doing what most people only dream of doing these days… living off the land in peace and harmony. This haunting drama from Winter’s Bone writer-director Debra Granik, follows a father and his thirteen year-old daughter, who are trying to achieve their ideal existence in a nature reserve in Oregon. We track their difficulties in foraging, living outdoors and their relationship strains as they try to make their nomadic forest-dwelling lifestyle a reality against the rules and regulations of society.

Playing like a docudrama and harnessing some gentle thriller elements, the film is treated with great subtlety as post-traumatic stress disorder becomes a mysterious undercurrent. Leave No Trace takes the perspective of Tom, a teenage girl, who’s sheltered existence has made her very aware of the outside world and the threat of being discovered. Moving from hiding place to hiding place, her and her father, Will, ensure they leave no trace – respecting nature and keeping below the radar of rangers and park visitors. That is until one little mistake changes their lives forever.

The performances are quite demure. Thomasin McKenzie is a terrific young actress, whose natural disposition is honest, curious and optimistic. Her fragile yet resilient performance reinforces the tone of the drama as we come to care for the unconventional family’s future. Ben Foster is almost unrecognisable as Will, generating an obscured and sensitive performance as a misguided and timid father with a need to be free in the wild.

“Leaf me alone! Evergreen humour that.”

Unfortunately for Leave No Trace, it comes in the wake of dramas such as Into the Wild, Wild, Room and Captain Fantastic. These excellent films dealt with wanderlust, people trying to venture outside of society, doing things unconventionally and at their own pace. Much like Into the Wild and Wild, there’s a restless spirit that carries these wandering souls. Their unusual lifestyle and cloistered existence has parallels to Room, in as much as they are likened to being hostages and have to reintegrate into society. Then, raising your family off the grid and trying to cope with the naysayers and rigours of the modern life make Leave No Trace similar to Captain Fantastic. While Leave No Trace earns its place among these stirring dramas about misfits and adventurers, it’s not quite fresh and could have been so much more.

Societal constraints and conventions are the real pursuant in this slow-burning drama and gentle thriller as they try to stay ahead without adapting too much, staying true to themselves. While slow-moving, it’s constantly fascinating in a similar way to the “Magyvering” in The Martian as the duo make it work outdoors, surviving off the land and trying to find a workable peace with their lot. This is a big-hearted film, which is quite naïve in tone, constantly believing the best in people. Completely vulnerable and operating with street smarts and petty criminal instinct, they’re at the mercy of just about everyone… yet no one takes advantage. It’s quite refreshing in the sense that they’re drawn to Good Samaritans, but does seem a bit bright-eyed in light of their precarious situation.

Granik has done a wonderful job of painting the audience into Will and Tom’s situation, contrasting the flow, beauty and danger of nature with the cold sensible sturdiness of modern living. The storytelling is staggered, really taking its time to swathe one in its suspended docudrama style reality, but remains curious enough to be compelling. Keeping a few unopened doors, allows the mystery around the characters to linger. Even though they don’t become particularly involving, one is transported and immersed in this forgiving world of man vs. nature and man vs. man.

The bottom line: Gentle

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