Leave No Trace (2018)

Tender and heartfelt in the most unassuming of ways, this father-daughter tale boasts two extraordinary lead performances in Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Debra Granik
2018 | USA | Drama | 109 mins | 1.85:1 | English
PG13 (passed clean) for thematic material throughout

Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster
Plot: A father and his 13 year-old daughter are living an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever.
Awards: Official Selection (Sundance)
Distributor: Sony Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #1,716

(Reviewed on screener)

Spoilers: No

It is an indie drama for sure, but after the critical success of the Jennifer Lawrence breakthrough vehicle, Winter’s Bone (2010), which was surprisingly nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, one might have predicted better results for Debra Granik’s long-awaited follow-up.  Leave No Trace, as it is called, may only be Granik’s third fiction feature, but in my books, it is one of 2018’s overlooked gems.

It is not just a standout US indie film, but a remarkably nuanced treatment on the standard father-daughter tale: A young girl relies on her father to provide her with food and shelter, but realises she must mature and provide for herself one day.

Granik sets this universal story as a modern-day parable against the tech-heavy, interconnected world that we live in.  But deep down, Leave No Trace is about a man suffering from PTSD who loves his daughter too much to let her chart her own path.

“The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

The first half-hour is truly fantastic as we become acquainted with the duo (played by Ben Foster of Hell and High Water (2016) and the emerging Thomasin McKenzie), who live isolated from society in the woods.

They cook, read and rest together, occasionally make a trek to town to get basic necessities.  In order to safeguard their comfortable lifestyle and future together, they must ‘leave no trace’.  To say anymore would be to dilute an already minimalist narrative; in fact, there’s little significant plotting, and conflicts seem mild, undramatic even.

But why Leave No Trace works so well is mainly because of the outstanding performances from the two leads, whose portrayals are tender and heartfelt in the most unassuming of ways.

Once Ben Foster had signed onto the film, he and Debra Granik worked together to remove around 40% of the dialogue, so as to make the film feel more realistic with less exposition.

Foster’s low-key role sees the actor channels his physical screen presence without being overly obtrusive, whilst McKenzie is the real revelation here, whose soft-spoken but strong-willed character creates gentle chemistry and compassionate intimacy.  The film’s epilogue is surely one of the year’s most moving sequences.

While it might appear too extreme for some to accept such a ‘back to basics’ lifestyle, not to mention the questionable ethics of restricting a child from socialising with others, Granik’s film does leave us with some reflecting to do.

Should anyone dictate how we live our lives?  Could we live a simpler lifestyle in these modern times?  Could we even bear to disconnect from the ‘disconnect’ of communicative technologies?  This is a drama everyone, especially parents with kids, should see.

Grade: A-




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