Movie Review: Leave No Trace

A drama about a homeless vet is one of the year’s best film

Leave No Trace (Beze stop)
Directed by Debra Granik
With Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey

War veterans often get no respect in films. Leave No Trace follows an Iraq veteran and his teen daughter trying to live off the grid in Portland, Oregon.

The material has the potential to be played as an exploitative tearjerker, but both the former soldier, Will (played by Ben Foster), and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), are shown as complex characters who struggle to keep their independence and dignity.

The result is one of the year’s best films and something that shows the audience a lot about people they would normally pass by without even seeing.

We don’t find much out about Will. He and his daughter are a bit terse. What exactly happened to Will is never clear, though he seems to panic when he hears helicopters. The Iraq War is never even mentioned specifically in the film. We only really know he was a veteran from his visit early on to a local Veterans Affairs office.

He and Tom life in the woods in a large public forest, hiding from public view, foraging for food and practicing survival skills.

This becomes upset, though, the police discover them and they are forced into social services. Social workers also get stereotyped in films as robotic bureaucrats who are more concerned with following protocols than with the actual people they deal with. Social workers aren’t made into villains, but Will in particular is set in his self-sufficient ways.

The two lead performances hopefully will be remembered when award nominations are given out. Ben Foster, who is currently in Prague filming the medieval battle epic Jan Žižka, gives us a slightly different veteran who, while apparently suffering from PTSD, is not someone who explodes into violence.

The character he creates is an essentially thoughtful and caring person who is devoted to his daughter, the one bright spot in his life.

Foster has been in several more action-oriented films such as Alpha Dog, X-Men: The Last Stand, 3:10 to Yuma, The Mechanic, and Hell or High Water. His edgy good looks tend to lead him into bad boy roles. Leave No Trace gives him an opportunity to show a much softer side.

Thomasin McKenzie actually comes from New Zealand, She had a small role in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and has been in TV series in her home country such as Shortland Street. In Leave No Trace, she plays a child who has to behave like an adult, since she has to take care of her dysfunctional father as much if not more than he takes care of her.

Her character is a person a few words. Her range is talking is rather narrow, but sometimes she says something with just a slightly more deliberate tone, and that makes a huge difference.

As the film progresses, she starts to come more into her own and realize that the homeless life they have led of camping and moving around is perhaps not all there is.

The dynamic between Will and Tom is what makes the movie. The two of them have made their own world of rules where they remain almost invisible to everyone, and take care of everything without leaving any evidence of their existence.

Acting throughout the film is fairly low key, with a lot of the minor characters seeming like nonprofessional actors who perhaps really are struggling veterans or people who live off the grid.

Director Debra Granik steps back and does not pass judgment on them. The focus of the film, with the two people at the center, makes their world seem like the normal one and the hostile outside world the one that is off-center.

Granik co-wrote the script with Anne Rosselini. There are several things one would expect that are left out, such as flashbacks to whatever happened to Will in Iraq to make him so reluctant to face mainstream society. There is one brief mention of Tom’s mother, and that also is not elaborated on. Happy scenes from Tom’s childhood are also left out.

The film is adapted from the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, and allegedly was inspired by a true story.

The sense of humanity in the film is something rare these days, when the screens are filled with CGI-based comic book films, over the top action and concept comedies. Leave No Trace looks back to the era before CGI took over and stories were driven by characters.

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