Movie: LEAVE NO TRACE Rating: PG, thematic material throughout
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Jeanne: A father, Will (Ben Foster), and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), live off the grid in Forest Park, a nature preserve bordering Portland, Oregon. Based on the novel, "My Abandonment" by Peter Rock and directed by Debra Granik (Oscar-nominated WINTER'S BONE), who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rossellini, LEAVE NO TRACE left me cold.
Will is a veteran suffering from PTS, but we learn little else other than loud noises and helicopters affect him greatly. Tom is a teenaged girl, though her exact age is never established. Living in the woods has obviously created a tight bond between these two, and Will has done an exemplary job teaching Tom all of the skills necessary to cope with such a barren lifestyle.
A chance encounter by Tom with a jogger brings the police, and their world is turned upside down. First forced to be separated in a shelter, which is so timely because of what is happening at our borders, then sent to live on a tree farm, where they can assimilate into an ordinary life, Will cannot adjust. Tom, however, begins to make new friends and is intrigued/worried about starting school.
In an effort to recapture their independence, Will coerces Tom to leave, venturing out into the Pacific Northwest. A few mistakes on Will's part plants them in a unique community living a secluded, but fulfilling existence.
I wanted to really like LEAVE NO TRACE. I am a huge fan of Foster's --- the consummate actor from THE MESSENGER and HELL OR HIGH WATER. And though his performance is poignant at times, I found his characterization off-putting.
We want to believe he loves Tom, but there are times when that love feels less than obvious. Yes, this is a veteran suffering, but he is never joyful or amused about anything. Foster is too heavy-handed in his "oh woe is me" persona. He has this beautiful, exceptional child who seemingly brings him little happiness. It is too overwhelmingly depressing.
Harcourt McKenzie, on the other hand, is amazing. A newcomer from New Zealand, she is already an accomplished actor --- giving a performance well beyond her years. LEAVE NO TRACE has limited dialogue, especially between Will and Tom, and whereas Foster, who is usually so effective, does not excel here. Harcourt McKenzie undeniably gives the stronger performance. At one point she is proudly showing her new skills at beekeeping to Will, only to be met with a lackluster response. The disappointment in her face and demeanor speaks volumes --- a real tribute to her acting abilities.
Though Forest Park is in itself a character in the beginning of this story, LEAVE NO TRACE was actually filmed in another Oregon park, Clackamas County's Eagle Fern Park. The breathtaking vistas of this forest and the entire Pacific Northwest are on full display in Granik's movie, beautifully filmed by Director of Photography, Michael McDonough.
It's almost impossible for me, and I'm sure others, to imagine living with so little, as we have become a nation of outrageous consumers. It's a testament to Granik's skills as a director --- and writer --- that this lifestyle is portrayed with such dignity, whether we agree with it or not. LEAVE NO TRACE starts off with great promise, particularly due to Harcourt McKenzie's presence, but in the end, it doesn't quite deliver for me.
Opinion: Wait for DVD
David: As entertainment value goes, director Debra Granik's new film, LEAVE NO TRACE, is a bit thin. Granik jump-started Jennifer Lawrence's career in 2010's WINTER'S BONE --- Lawrence earned her first Best Actress nomination for that film --- and here Granik again collaborates with her writing partner Anne Rosellini. But LEAVE NO TRACE doesn't have the necessary emotional impact for me.
The premise that a man and his teenaged daughter could find contentment, even happiness, living in a tent in a secluded forest is a stretch. It's also a bit strange, even unsettling, that their tent is so small they are practically sleeping on top of each other. Although LEAVE NO TRACE is based on real events, the film did not resonate with me on any empathetic or personal level.
There are, however, some special moments, to be sure. The daughter, Tom (played by 17-year-old New Zealander Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), gradually becomes aware of the world around her. When she and her father, Will (Ben Foster), are befriended by a local farmer after authorities remove them from their forest "home", Tom eventually meets a beekeeper and is enthralled with the fact that hundreds of bees are not stinging the woman.
In fact, Tom is somewhat in awe as she realizes there is more to life than living in the woods and scavenging for food every day. She makes friends and begins to socialize. Will, meanwhile, is sullen, ungrateful for the roof over their heads --- however temporary --- and clearly not happy sleeping in comfortable confines.
The change in direction of the father's and daughter's lives is what drives LEAVE NO TRACE. Her self-awakening creates a wedge in their relationship, and when the inevitable happens, we are neither surprised nor shocked. But more importantly, we are not moved.
Opinion: Wait for DVD