It’s in the clicks, a soft double-click sound made by the tongue of a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s a secret code to tell her father she’s near and she loves him. Leave No Trace is rich with details like this, which deftly paint its central father-daughter relationship without a word. It’s clear in their comfort, the way she falls into sync with his humming of a half-remembered tune. In their efficiency in building a fire, scavenging for wild mushrooms, and casually shooing away wild dogs, you learn this isn’t just a camping trip. This shelter of tarps and tents in the midst of a lush park in Portland, Oregon, is their home, humble but happy. However, once the authorities discover them, this simple bliss will be shattered, forcing the two to come to a brutal decision.
From Winter’s Bone co-writer/director Debra Granik, Leave No Trace is a ruthlessly intimate family drama set on the fringe of contemporary society, trekking from campsite to cabin, train car to trailer. Ben Foster stars as Will, a traumatized veteran shattered by his time in the service. He chooses to live away from “them,” the society he can’t abide or understand. Adapted from the Peter Rock novel, the film offers no grand Oscar-baiting speeches about Will’s painful past or the hell of war. The script by Granik and Anne Rosellini instead grants quick clues like a visit to a Veterans Affairs hospital and his daughter Tom’s terse exchange with a social worker to lay the barest details. From there, Will’s past and present are all on Foster, who radiates trauma with tension, his lips a clenched frown, his eyes flashing with a barely contained panic. In the woods, he is comfortable and capable. But in their world, loud sounds hurl him into anxiety and social interactions feel a suffocating burden. With few lines but a ferocious presence, Foster is mesmerizing in the role, in his tense silence giving voice to the suffering soldiers, who Americans thank for their service without fully confronting their sacrifice. Yet this is not his movie. Though Foster will win critical praise and potential awards acclaim, Leave No Trace will be remembered as the stunning breakthrough for New Zealand ingénue Thomasin McKenzie.
This is Tom’s story, that of a girl who has lived in the woods so long she’s never been to school. Yet she is no fool. Educated by her dad, she’s academically sharp. Protective of him, she’s learned how to be cautious about people, careful what to say and what not to. McKenzie’s big blue eyes glint with a guardedness and pleading when she’s answering probing questions from an eager social services worker. Those same enchanting eyes light up when she spots a cheap necklace lost on a trail, a shiny seahorse charm glinting up through the dirt, a simple treasure lost now found. Her stoic expression melts into a smile when she stumbles across a chubby pet rabbit named Chainsaw, and the beautiful boy who is his owner. In these moments away from her dad, we see Tom growing up and away from him. Their conversations, always terse and never loud, become strained with a new tension and a burning desire for community that her father alone cannot fulfill. Despite the potential for melodrama, there’s nothing showy in McKenzie’s performance. It’s shocking in its confident nuance and seemingly effortless naturalism, making every moment feel bracingly authentic.
There’s a quiet dignity to Leave No Trace that invites you to understand Will’s unusual way of life. The woods–so green, lush and quiet–are shot with obvious admiration, while the city is presented a place that’s cluttered, colorless, and noisy. An ungarnished sincerity invites you in to understand Tom’s love of this life, while following her yearning for something more. It’s pacing is slow but measured, like a long hike through a rocky wooded path. As with such a journey, you spy beauty along the way, moments and glimpses you’d have missed if you were running. And in the end, you come to a destination that is literally breathtaking. You pause, reflect, and marvel.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com