Without any prior knowledge of what it was about, I remember seeing an early screening of 2010’s chilling WINTER’S BONE. I was entranced by the story, environment, and characters within the deep Ozark mountain setting. It somehow felt honest and real and simultaneously unbelievable. WINTER’S BONE was one of my favorite films that year and I had no doubt that the young unknown actress, Jennifer Lawrence, in the lead would be a huge star. I’m willing to bet writer and director Debra Granik knew it too when she chose the unknown actress to lead her small movie.
It was with great anticipation to see Debra Granik bring another intimate film to the big screen. LEAVE NO TRACE is a thoughtful, quiet observation about a teenage girl, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), and her veteran father Will (Ben Foster). The two have lived deep in the vastly wooded Forest Park for many years. Observing their interaction as they prepare dinner and plant a small garden or even play chess, they clearly have an adept understanding of living minimally as well as have a loving father daughter relationship. Utilizing the safety and anonymity of the forrest, they keep their tent and tracks hidden. Only carefully heading to the city for limited supplies and food, the audience quickly begins to learn that Tom and Will are not suppose to be living out here. Once they are discovered and removed from the city property into the charge of a social services agency, they must try to adapt to their new surroundings. So many times, stories feel the need to present a villain. LEAVE NO TRACE only provides people who want to help, but desire to be separate from society sometimes proves to be too great.
Newcomer Thomasin McKenzie is nothing short of amazing showing innocence and wisdom as Tom. She embodies a young girl who loves her father and understands his need to be separate from the world. But she also has an opposing quiet strength of understanding her own desires to be part of a community. Ben Foster is once again brilliant as a father who desires the absolute best for his daughter but struggles with his own tormented limits in life. Both performances are delivered in glances and reactions but it’s also the consistency of the looks on their faces about who these people are.
Debra Granik is incredible at creating place with the camera. Observing the characters and the environment they’re in from one place to another, she is able to visually tell a story without any unnecessary dialogue. It’s a beautiful tale, albeit a minimal one. There is hardly any action or even real drama but one can feel these characters and why this is a difficult situation. In some ways it might be the best and most sympathetic observation about a veteran suffering from PTSD and I don’t think that term is ever even uttered. Without delving too deeply, LEAVE NO TRACE is unique in the completely different way it allegorizes a child growing older and independent without any of the coming of age tropes we’ve come to see through high school hormonal movies. There’s a lot to unfold, yet it’s incredibly simple. LEAVE NO TRACE is a thoughtful movie that cares deeply about the characters and their environment.
Unlike WINTER’S BONE, LEAVE NO TRACE doesn’t have the excitement of meth and murder. It doesn’t have the traditional excitement that general audience members probably desire. But with a PG rating and running only 109 minutes, LEAVE NO TRACE is easily digestible as an interesting observational piece that also just might touch an emotional cord within all of us.