Saturday 20 June 2020

Movie Review: Leave No Trace (2018)

A drama about mental health and cross-generational impacts, Leave No Trace probes difficult subject matter with warm tenderness.

In Oregon, army veteran Will (Ben Foster) lives with his 13 year old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) deep in a wooded public park outside Portland. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Will cannot properly function around people, indoors or in typical civilized surroundings. However he treats Tom well, and she is adjusted to living rough.

Park rangers uncover and arrest the pair. After an evaluation by social workers they are provided with a modest home on the property of a tree farmer. Will tries to adapt to living indoors and working on the farm, while Tom starts the process of making friends. However, Will soon insists they break free again and head to another distant park. But now Tom has a treasured glimpse of the potential for a better life, and is not as willing to be homeless with her father.

Leave No Trace features a minimal amount of dialogue, and the few spoken words are delivered with calm hesitation. Director Debra Granik co-wrote the script with Anne Rosellini, adapting the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock, with an emphasis on mood, quiet emotion and a sense of place. The film nevertheless builds up power and momentum from an overwhelming emotional displacement. Will knows he is in a mental place others cannot reach, and he only finds solace in physical space others cannot find.

Trudging through the muddy woods, in the rain, far away from prying eyes, is where he feels safe. He keeps his daughter secure and educated, and mostly warm and fed, but in social isolation. The nature of home (and home as nature), the misery and loneliness caused by untreated mental trauma, and the potential transference of psychological damage to the next generation are underlying themes within the thick foliage. 

The slow pacing and relative lack of incident demand two engrossing performances. Ben Foster speaks volumes by saying little, his haunted eyes hinting at plenty that needs to be said and the certainty none of it will be understood. New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie matches him by capturing a young teen transforming to an adult, her brief interactions with others creating daylight between the expectations of daughter and father, although he still represents the loving anchor in her life.

With quiet courage, Leave No Trace actively seeks the often ignored pain hidden on the edges of society. The causes are clear, but the solutions remain as slippery as the wet Northwestern rainforest.

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