Debra Garnik returns with this deeply intelligent, complex, emotional film, adapted by Granik and her screenwriting partner, Anne Rosellini, from the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Garnik was the director behind the exceptional Winter’s Bone in 2010 which helped launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career.
Leave No Trace is a film that may have slipped under the radar, but it is worth seeking out because like Lynne Ramsay’s stunning, You Were Never Really Here, this is a testament to the craftmanship and unique vision of a female filmmaker. Like You Were Never Really Here, Leave No Trace also capture the relationship between a father or a father-like figure and a young girl (daughter). Aside from the similarity in main characters, these two films also address mental health issues in men which is a current issue in society, with just over three out of four suicides (76%) are by men and suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 35.
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie play Will and Tom, a grizzled army veteran and his 13-year-old daughter. The two of them only have each other, Tom’s mother is absent and has possibly passed away (although it isn’t addressed), but they seem happy enough with each other’s company. Will and Tom are living in a huge public park in Portland, Oregon. They have built a secret camp built out of tarps, and even make their own fires. They share a tent. They read books. They play chess together. They have military-style drills for staying undercover. Every so often, they venture out of the park and into the city, where Will can pick up his prescription at the vets hospital, which he can discreetly sell for cash on the black market to buy food.
To many of us, it may seem like a crazy lifestyle, but to Will and Tom it’s perfect. More importantly they are happy with their lives, and aren’t doing anyone harm. But then Tom carelessly allows herself to be spotted by a hiker and things take a turn for the worse.
Foster and McKenzie both deliver a naturalistic performance, which speaks volumes making up for the sparse lack of dialogue. The two of them have excellent on-screen presence, and we genuinely believe that they are father and daughter. McKenzie manages to hold her own against Foster, and stands out with her performance capturing the awkwardness that teenage girls feel as they make the transition from girl to young woman. Foster’s Will is a man of very little words, but we can see the internal pain and struggle that he is fighting hard to contain inside him. Although, little is revealed to us about his past, what information we do discover paints a very hard and traumatic past.
In one very short scene, Will awakes in the night in a state of panic after hearing a helicopter fly above their tent, his daughter sleeps peacefully beside him. We see how alone Will is in the world, and the struggle he is facing trying to put on a brave face for his daughter. It is also worth mentioning that the supporting cast deliver strong performances, with Dale Dickey, Dana Millican and Jeff Kober being noteworthy. And the film strength also lies in the work by cinematographer Michael McDonough (who shot Winter’s Bone) who manages to capture the beauty and isolation of the film’s geographical location.
Neither Tom or Will seem too concerned with what the future holds for them, nor when Tom should really be getting a tent of her own – let alone meet other people her own age. They have each other and they seem content with that. Although, it’s clear that there’s a divide occuring between them. Tom seems to be able to adjust quite easily to whatever environment she finds herself and settles in each place they find themselves in.
Tom also connects with people along the way, opening up to those she can trust and it seems a shame to see her lose that connection whenever her father feels restless and tells her that they must escape once again. There is a sense that the father and daughter must depart ways, the girl has come of age and can no longer tend to her father.
The build-up to this climax is slow but is masterfully done without being too sentimental, and Granik seems to understand how to deliver an emotional moment without being manipulative. The intimacy and love between Will and Tom comes across as real, and the viewer feels a connection to both these characters.
After losing my stepfather very recently; who reminded me a lot of the character of Will, I was very nervous about watching this film. Perhaps it was too soon to watch a film with a daughter and father relationship at its core, but it felt right to watch Leave No Trace. In a way, it was like therapy allowing me to have an emotional release of all my collected sorrow.
The characters and their relationship reminded me so much of my relationship with my stepfather that it was eerie to watch in certain points. He was a man who would have loved to live in isolation, and living off the land, which he would always ‘joke’ about doing and I believe he would have found the camp that Tom and her father live in quite interesting (perhaps he would have taken some notes).
It’s a shame that I will never get the chance to watch Leave No Trace with my stepfather, as I know he would have fully enjoyed this film. This was an emotional film to watch, but a highly rewarding experience which manages to capture the unique bond that many fathers and daughters share. There will come a time where every daughter must depart with their father, and like Tom says in the film in on heartbreaking moment ”I know you would stay if you could.” The film’s title may be Leave No Trace, but our father’s do leave a trace… Us.