Leave No Trace

Will (Ben Foster) and his teen daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), have lived off the grid in the vast public wilderness outside of Portland, Oregon. Tom is spotted, just by chance, by a runner and, soon, the police descend upon their camp, taking the father and daughter into custody in “Leave No Trace.”

Laura's Review: B+

A young girl, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), sits beside her dad Will (Ben Foster) at a campsite whittling what appears to be an art object, 'feathering' the wood. We soon learn this is a technique to start a fire. Later, Will will watch Tom clamber down a hill, hiding among the foliage. He evaluates her skill, noting that her colorful socks 'burned' her when their objective is to "Leave No Trace." With her first two feature films cowriter (with producer Anne Rosellini)/director Debra Granik broke out Vera Farmiga ("Down to the Bone") and Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone"). Now, adapting the novel by Peter Rock about a veteran with PTSD and his daughter living off the grid, she brings McKenzie to the forefront. The young actress projects the dazed yet intelligent innocence of someone unfamiliar with the modern world. We never learn the details of Will's trauma (Tom will eventually find a newspaper article about 'a unit stalked by suicide' among his belongings), but he clearly cannot cope with reentry into society. Tom's newly voracious appetite is the first sign that she may be outgrowing their lifestyle. The two make the journey from a state park into Portland to purchase groceries. But Tom's stomach isn't the only thing that's growing - her curiosity is too - and when she ventures too far afield from their hidden camp, she's spotted. She doesn't tell dad about the incident. The two are found by local law enforcement who handle the situation with refreshing compassion. Will is given a battery of psychological tests which eventually defeat him while Tom sits with teenaged girls making 'dream' collages. They are found housing on a Christmas Tree farm, where Will is expected to work. Tom revels in the domesticity, her bedroom adorned with plastic horse models. She strikes up a friendship with a 4H teen raising rabbits. But after attending a church service, Will's had enough of putting on his community face. When they return to the forest, they are met with the ongoing destruction of a veterans' camp, more fallout from Tom's indiscretion. Will leads them to higher, harsher elevations where they find an abandoned cabin, but when he falls and is seriously injured, Tom must seek help from strangers. Brought to a home, Tom begs Dale (Dale Dickey) not to call authorities. Dale appraises the situation and calls in Blane (David M. Pittman), a former army medic. There is a self-contained community in these woods and Tom couldn't be happier when they are given an RV to live in, but will Will find peace? Granik's films of dispossessed Americans are steeped in regional atmosphere, pockets of the country where various struggles are presented with great empathy. While "Winter's Bone" used the illegal meth industry as its heroine's obstacle, "Leave No Trace" instead offers only support and community. It is a hopeful message in these hopeless times (Tom's cry of 'I want to stay with my dad!' will take on meanings surely never anticipated by the humanistic filmmaker). "Leave No Trace" is a moving father/daughter portrait, the father suffering from his war experiences as his daughter comes of age realizing she is being denied everyday experiences. Foster's wounded independence doesn't blind him to the needs of his child, his acceptance heartbreaking. There is a quietness to both his and McKenzie's performances, the whisper of those seeking to call no attention to themselves. Pittman is strong as the compassionate vet whose therapy dog could make all the difference. The green lushness of Oregon's forests provide a stunning backdrop, peaceful quiet amidst often treacherous terrain. Tindersticks' Dickon Hinchliffe's ("Winter's Bone") original music reflects the area with its plaintive violins. Grade:

Robin's Review: B

Director, co-writer Debra Granik, who introduced most of us to Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone (2010),” adapts, with Anna Rosellini, Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment. The result is a father-daughter story and a study about a young woman growing up in an unconventional world. We know that Will is a veteran who gave up the “normal” life to live off the land, away from the vagaries of civilization. He suffers from PTSD, we think, but we never learn much of his past or why he made the life-changing decisions for himself and Tom. We just know that he wants to be left alone to raise his daughter in his own way. That changes when the cops arrive. Suddenly, Tom is ensconced in a foreign world, so different from the place where her dad made life decisions for her. But it is not a world that Will can live in and he decides, for both, to leave the security and resume their former life. This is a new chapter for Tom and, because of a serious accident with her dad, she is thrust into a commune of strangers. While Will recuperates, Tom is embraced by the simple life and love among its members. The story, from beginning to end, is enthralling, mainly due to the anchoring performances by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. There is true father-daughter chemistry between them, but there is more. There is a strong feeling of trust and affection that shows not just the love of a father and daughter, but a true friendship. The supporting cast may be unknown names to most moviegoers but they are an integral part to the story and each character has meaning. This makes for a story rich in its people and shows a world of hope for Tom - and a crossroads for her. I came away caring for Will and, especially, Tom and wish them the best.