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Leave No Trace Reviews
“Leave No Trace” struck a chord with me early, and I could feel its emotional tug all the way till the end. It’s not a movie deeply concerned with plot. Instead it is all about character.
Full Review | Original Score: 4.5/5 | Aug 23, 2022
Ben Foster gives the performance of his career – it’s a knockout. Leave No Trace doesn’t have a false note in it.
Full Review | Original Score: 5/5 | Aug 17, 2022
Granik brilliantly delivers the viewer into the characters' spatially and socially secluded world, making otherwise normal, crowded living environments seem oppressive and even dangerous by comparison.
Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/4 | Mar 11, 2022
a truly superb drama that offers no answers and just takes viewers along for the ride.
Full Review | Jan 11, 2022
Writer-director Debra Granik's take on PTSD in military veterans is of course compassionate but perhaps slightly less tolerant of the isolation that her male protagonist...
Full Review | Nov 23, 2021
Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is a gripping drama...
Despite the heartbreaking stories she tells, she gives them (particularly the young women in her films) a flicker of hope in the darkness.
[It] concerns itself with individuals attempting to exist outside societal norms and, in doing so, proves to be a moving study of love, loss and what it means to truly belong.
Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is a gem of a film.
Where their story goes from here isn't always easy to watch, but thanks to McKenzie and Foster's fully committed performances and Granik's nuanced direction, it's powerful and compelling.
Leave No Trace is a slow burn, and carefully constructed; the performances are measured and calm. There's no need to overplay the drama - the circumstances presented here are serious enough as they are.
Full Review | Sep 9, 2021
...Foster's most subtle performance and an exciting debut from both Debra and McKenzie who I can't wait to see more out of.
Full Review | Original Score: 82/100 | Aug 22, 2021
I loved Director Debra Granick's feature Leave No Trace, which captures a pulled-from-life sense of surviving off the grid in Pacific Northwest forests.
Full Review | Jul 22, 2021
While the film alludes to larger societal problems such as America's treatment of veterans, and inflexible, societal views about what it means to be a caregiver, the primary narrative focus is on an intimate relationship between two people...
Full Review | Apr 16, 2021
This is director Debra Granik's first fiction feature since ... Winter's Bone, and it's been worth the wait.
Full Review | Feb 18, 2021
Leave No Trace is wonder to behold, a hard watch made even harder by the fact that it really happened. It is a truly American story of love, survival and acceptance in our country's often forgotten frontier.
Full Review | Jan 28, 2021
Leave No Trace should start a healthy conversation while providing a heartfelt story that doesn't ring false even once during its 110 minutes.
Full Review | Nov 10, 2020
One of the very best films of the year.
Full Review | Original Score: 4.0/4.0 | Sep 13, 2020
Taps into the gut-wrenching possibilities of the kindness of humanity; it is delicately compelling and intricately detailed.
Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Aug 19, 2020
Another tour de force from Granik - a filmmaker who instinctively knows how to alchemise the dramatic, cinematographic and anthropological elements of her stories so acutely.
Full Review | Original Score: 5/5 | Aug 12, 2020
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Leave No Trace
- Debra Granik
- Debra Granik (screenplay by)
- Anne Rosellini (screenplay by)
- Peter Rock (based on the novel "My Abandonment" by)
- Thomasin McKenzie
- Jeffery Rifflard
- 388 User reviews
- 204 Critic reviews
- 88 Metascore
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- 18 wins & 95 nominations
- (as Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie)
- (as Jeff Rifflard)
- (as Derek Drescher)
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Did you know
- Trivia The newspaper clipping that Tom finds in her father's "important papers" bag was not created as a prop for this movie; it was a real news article titled "A Unit Stalked by Suicide, Trying to Save Itself" by Dave Phillips, which was one of the above-the-fold front-page articles in the New York Times on Sunday, September 20, 2015. The article was about a single Marine unit (the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, aka the 2/7) that after returning from deployment in Afghanistan experienced a very high rate of suicide among its veterans. It is never explained in the movie whether the glimpse of this article is meant to imply that Will actually was a member of the 2/7, or if he just kept the article because it related to his PTSD and related medical situation.
- Goofs In the scene when Tom leaves the cabin to search for her father, a crew member can be seen moving behind the tree to her left just before the scene ends.
Tom : The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me.
- Connections Featured in WatchMojo: Top 10 Movies You Missed This Summer (2018)
- Soundtracks Killing Time Written by Eric Wikman (as Eric Corser Wikman) & Joseph Michael McGregor Courtesy of FirstCom
User reviews 388
- Aug 2, 2018
- June 29, 2018 (United Kingdom)
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- Jul 1, 2018
- Runtime 1 hour 49 minutes
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Debra Granik 's 2010 " Winter's Bone " was a bleak, powerful film, introducing Jennifer Lawrence to a wide audience in her self-assured performance as a 17-year-old girl trying to keep her family together in the economically devastated Ozarks. Granik's follow-up was the documentary " Stray Dog ," showing the psychological struggles of Vietnam vet and activist Ron Hall . Granik's work contains a real social and political critique, even more so since she focuses in on individuals. Her new film, "Leave No Trace," adapted from the 2009 novel, My Abandonment by Peter Rock, combines elements of "Winter's Bone" and "Stray Dog," the young girl off the grid, the troubled veteran living with PTSD. "Leave No Trace" is, at times, heartbreaking, but it's also filled with glimpses of almost casual human kindness, throwaway moments of good will and inclusion piercing through what could be the bleakest of tales. Granik shows great insight into the struggles of those who choose to "opt out," those who just want to be left alone, those who literally can't "fit in" to the larger world. At its very best, it is an immensely moving portrait of a father and daughter who love each other, and who can't bear to be apart.
The film starts in a forest of proliferating wet trees and moss, a thick impenetrable wall of green, which turns out to be a public park in Portland, Oregon. Will ( Ben Foster ) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are first seen chopping wood, playing chess, gathering mushrooms, surrounded by tarps and propane tanks. The opening sequence unfolds with almost no dialogue, giving us an intimate sense of the their routines, their wordless communication and accord. They sleep in sleeping bags, cuddling up for warmth as the rain pours down on their tent. They walk into town to buy groceries. Will makes money selling prescription drugs to people living in a tent city on the outskirts of the park. The life is hard, but the love between father and daughter is undeniable. These two actors are so in sync, so mentally connected, you believe totally they are father and daughter, you believe they've been living in the woods for months, maybe even years. The intimacy between them is so palpable it comes with great anxiety about what might be waiting for them outside the forest. Granik roots her tale in reality, focusing on the details of their lives. It is like they are one being.
Their world is a fragile Eden, though, and when a jogger spots Tom one day, cops come and raid their makeshift camp, bringing Will and Tom for questioning. Tom is put into a detention center for teenage girls, and Will is given a battery of psychological tests. The forest gives way, jarringly, to the fluorescent lights of well-meaning but incompetent human bureaucracy. Granik's presentation, though, is idiosyncratic. The expectation may be that bureaucracy would be presented as heartless and cold, and of course in some ways it is. But when Tom wanders into the main room of the juvenile center, two teenage girls tell her they're working on their "dream boards" and does she want to do one too? They offer her construction paper. And Will, totally out of place at a computer, struggling to answer the 100s of questions put to him, is helped by a social worker who walks him through it. "Leave No Trace" is filled with quiet moments like this, and yet it avoids being self-consciously "heartwarming." People are cruel sometimes, yes, but sometimes they are kind too.
Will and Tom are reunited, thanks to a kindly stranger who steps forward after reading about them in the newspaper, offering Ben a job and a home on his Christmas tree farm. Ben works, staring at the bound-up Christmas trees flying through the air into a truck, and you don't need dialogue to feel his sense of isolation, his longing to be back in the woods again. Meanwhile, Tom befriends a local farm kid, who invites her to his 4-H meetings, where kids show up with their rabbits. She really likes it. Will experiences society as confining as Procrustes' bed. You can feel how much the presence of four walls and a ceiling torments him, how he won't be able to bear it for long.
Debra Granik treats the story with a feather-light touch, while still grounding the film in an almost documentary-style reality. She doesn't "hammer things home," she lets things unfold. There's no didactic preaching about the evils of the world (as " Captain Fantastic ," another film about a father who chooses to live off the grid with his children, indulged in). The critique of society is there in the material, but it's implicit, not explicit. How the culture treats its wounded warriors is a disgrace, but—on the flip side— Tom is a child. She doesn't go to school. The culture needs to care about her too. As Will continues to resist, even in the face of kindness, Tom is almost torn in two, by her curiosity about the world, and her attachment to her father. Ben Foster, always a reliably excellent character actor, gives one of the performances of the year as Will. McKenzie, a young girl with a serious face, seems to have emerged out of real life. There isn't a hint of precocious child actress in her. What a discovery she is.
The "outsider" is a beloved mythic trope in our culture, from Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield, to " Rebel Without a Cause " and " Easy Rider ," to the Beat generation. These figures remove themselves from the constraints of conformity, refuse the comforts of middle-class life, live by their wits, follow the wind. Will and Tom are so close that the thought of them being separated is shattering. You wonder how they will survive it. Will thinks as long as they are camping in the woods together, his demons will be kept at bay. But the clock is ticking. Tom is growing up. Everyone needs to choose their own way. In "Leave No Trace," Granik creates a specific mood, gloomy and yet redemptive, sometimes simultaneously. The redemption is painful, though, because it comes with such a hefty price.
The final shot gives the film's title an almost tragic resonance.
Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here .
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Leave No Trace (2018)
Rated PG for thematic material throughout.
Ben Foster as Will
Thomasin McKenzie as Caroline
- Debra Granik
Writer (based on the novel "My Abandonment" by)
- Anne Rosellini
- Michael McDonough
- Dickon Hinchliffe
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Common Sense says
Tension, some peril in intense father-daughter drama.
Based on 13 reviews
Based on 6 reviews
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Leave No Trace is an intense, moving drama from the director of Winter's Bone about a loving father and daughter who are shaken out of their comfortable (if alternative) existence and must struggle to cope with society's demands. It deals with complex, realistic topics including homelessness, alternative living, and occasional exposure-related peril, all involving a 13-year-old girl (Thomasin McKenzie). Her father ( Ben Foster ) is a veteran who's suffering from PTSD; he makes choices that aren't meant to harm anyone but that could upset/disturb younger viewers. He also sells his prescription meds to a drug dealer. But there's no strong language or sex; the girl is intelligent, loving, and brave; and the movie ultimately has themes of understanding, love, and compassion.
- Parents say (13)
- Kids say (6)
How do you live your way? What are the consequences?
Report this review, leave no trace.
This title has:
What's the Story?
Based on Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment (which itself was inspired by a true story), LEAVE NO TRACE follows a troubled veteran named Will ( Ben Foster ) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), as they try to live outside society. But when their self-sufficient existence in an Oregon public forest is upended, they're forced to integrate into the world -- or escape and find another way to live. Their loving bond is tested as Tom experiences the wider world outside their camp, and hard choices must be made.
Is It Any Good?
Well-acted and well-written, calmly presented, and moving, this drama has a ring of truth, despite its extraordinary story. Perhaps that's because it was, after all, inspired by true events. In a way, Leave No Trace could function as the middle part of a trilogy (in between the excellent Captain Fantastic and Lean on Pete ) of contemporary American indies depicting lifestyles outside of mainstream society. All three films show the mighty struggles of those on the outside -- some by choice, some scraping to survive. All three involve the experiences of children. Leave No Trace , which was directed and co-adapted by Debra Granik (of the superb Winter's Bone ), isn't as witty as Captain Fantastic or as harrowing as Lean on Pete , but it is soulful and emotional. It's rooted deeply in Will and Tom's genuine respect and love for each other, which makes their choices and resourcefulness all the more admirable.
It's up to the two leads, Foster and relative newcomer McKenzie, to carry the film, and they're more than up to the task. McKenzie in particular is arresting as a loving daughter whose eyes are opened to a world she never dreamed she wanted to know. But the film is ultimately about how far down a difficult road people can go together before one of them needs to diverge. The kindness of strangers and the truthfulness of familial love speak to the deep humanism that informs this drama, even as it moves toward a painful conclusion.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about why Will and Tom are forced to integrate into society in Leave No Trace . Is it fair? Necessary? How do they each react to their changed circumstances? Which one of them do you relate to more?
How does the movie convey the importance of compassion ? How do Will and Tom support each other, even when their choices are different? Do you consider them role models ?
How are homeless people typically portrayed on-screen? How do Will and Tom compare to that depiction? Do you think they were better off in the forest or in the home they were provided by the government? Or elsewhere?
Was Will at all scary to you? What did you think of him and his choices?
- In theaters : June 29, 2018
- On DVD or streaming : October 2, 2018
- Cast : Ben Foster , Thomasin McKenzie , Dale Dickey
- Director : Debra Granik
- Studio : Bleecker Street
- Genre : Drama
- Topics : Book Characters
- Character Strengths : Compassion
- Run time : 108 minutes
- MPAA rating : PG
- MPAA explanation : thematic material throughout
- Last updated : February 18, 2023
Our Editors Recommend
Original, moving drama has some disturbing moments.
Lean on Pete
Haunting tale of survival and love has language, violence.
Heavy-handed grown-up drama has lots of mature content.
Strong teen girl character drives grim but superb drama.
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Anatomy of a Scene | ‘Leave No Trace’
Debra granik narrates a sequence from her film featuring thomasin harcourt mckenzie and ben foster..
My name is Debra Granik and I’m the co-writer and director of the film “Leave No Trace.” In this scene, Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster, who are playing the lead characters, are in their encampment. And they’ve lived there trying to be undetected. And they hear something which cues them that it’s little different than normal. They’ve heard many sounds over the years. This is different. “It’s not a drill.” They run and perform a hiding procedure that they’ve practiced before. And we were very surprised that in the Pacific Northwest, I wondered what some techniques were for camouflaging. Turns out sword ferns, these primordial plants that have been with us since, I guess, dinosaur times, you can roll into them. And Thom and Ben practiced how to roll into one of these ferns. And it’s also known to soldiers who had been in jungle situations. And you really can become undetected. And there’s a very intense system about the glint of the eye and reflective surfaces, anything of a lighter color. So you really can’t show your eye. So spying out becomes very difficult. And we had the benefit of working with real police officers from the Portland PD who told us how they would approach the search. And their K-9 dog was being heavily controlled, and of course we took measures so that the dog understood it was doing an exercise, not a real recon. But the fact that the dog was there and it was barking and there was tension, I think it made the scene very vivid for the actors. This scene is shot in a county park outside of Portland. We had the great fortune of having a ranger that ran that park allow us to work with him to film in a relatively benign way, you know, and repatriate any fern that we trampled. And everything you see there is what the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest offers. “Anything on you that’s going to hurt me?” “Just the knives.” I think something that became very heavy as we were filming this was there wasn’t a person standing there — and we were a 50-person crew all in — who could witness the scene and not have it curse through their brain, what if Will was black? That this scene would play out possibly so devastatingly differently. And it was such a hallmark of our time to watch the scene and not have — it’s not a phantom memory, it’s a very contemporary anxiety about how things are playing out with the lives of men of color and treatment by police. So it is not in the text. But it was in people’s minds as it was filmed. And no, that’s not enough. The next step is have it be in the text. “Dad!” [dog barking] “Dad?”
By Manohla Dargis
- June 28, 2018
The dense green foliage that surrounds the man and his daughter in “Leave No Trace” seems to hold them as if in sheltering arms. It is a blissful, serene scene, one set to the sounds of human movement and the familiar natural buzzing, chirping and whirring. The tall mossy trees and carpet of ferns suggest that it’s the Pacific Northwest, somewhere deep in the woods. Father and daughter seem to be camping — there are tarps as well as a fire pit, though no car or other people in sight — but then the girl sits on a plastic milk crate and the two settle into the site they call home.
The director Debra Granik has a gift for cinematic spaces that are vibrantly, palpably alive, and for putting you in places, whether modest homes or the great outdoors, that make you feel as if you’re standing right alongside her characters. In “Leave No Trace,” she immediately sets you down in a forest that’s so inviting, so tranquil, that it seems like utopia and all the possibilities that wistful, elusive ideal implies. Look, she seems to say as the camera pulls up and away — and cuts the two human travelers down to humble size — look at all this grandeur, all this unspoiled beauty. Don’t you want in?
The title evokes the ethos embraced by experienced campers and others who know the true way to love nature is to do no harm. (Pack it in, pack it out.) In “Leave No Trace,” the words also come to mean something more disturbing and difficult, namely the desire and sometimes the need to be so far apart from civilization that you’re profoundly, perhaps permanently outside it. When the movie opens, the young teenage girl, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), and her father, Will (Ben Foster), aren’t just living — foraging, surviving, apparently thriving — in the forest, they are existing in a state of willed invisibility.
In “Leave No Trace,” Ms. Granik explores what it means to be so far on the margins you might as well not exist at all, at least as far as the larger world is concerned. It’s a familiar concern for Ms. Granik, who’s drawn to American outsiders — intentional and unintentional exiles alike — living in what are often blandly called poor and marginalized communities. These are the people who populate her stories and bring them to tangibly real life in dramatic movies like “ Winter’s Bone ,” set in the Ozark Mountains in rural Missouri, and in her documentary “ Stray Dog ,” which centers on a gruffly warm biker and Vietnam veteran who radically defies stereotype.
Shortly after the movie begins, a swarm of police and social-service types crashes Tom and Will’s makeshift sanctuary, destroying it. After a brief interrogation, father and daughter are relocated to a modest house adjacent to a tree farm. There, under supervision — the main caseworker is a kindly, stubborn meddler — Will works for the owner helping harvest trees while Tom, her curiosity blossoming as her world expands, explores their new home. She learns how to ride a bike, a donation that Will initially refuses, and meets a boy (Isaiah Stone). He’s building a tiny house (self-reliance is one of the movie’s refrains) and introduces her to 4-H (community is another).
Based on the novel “ My Abandonment ,” by Peter Rock, “Leave No Trace” opens up gradually, much like Tom does. Written by Ms. Granik and Anne Rosellini, it follows a fairly straight narrative line that occasionally heads down seeming detours that subtly enrich its realism. When Will and Tom visit a Veterans Affairs facility in an early scene, Ms. Granik visually underscores the building’s chilly institutionalism yet also reminds you of the people inside it. Because when Tom speaks to one man, the point isn’t so much their talk but all the veterans around them who — having once served with others — seem to now wait and roam, on foot and in wheelchairs, in pronounced isolation.
Throughout, Ms. Granik brings you into worlds within worlds and puts her loners in sight of communities, creating a dynamic that pushes the story forward and pulls at Tom and Will. Other people continually tug at this insistently quiet, intimate movie (you hear birds and human breath alike), unsettling the seclusion that Will, freely or by necessity, has escaped into with Tom. And while his name sounds meaningful, it isn’t easily decoded. Ms. Granik is interested in free will or its illusion — a grimy Palestinian scarf Will wears points to military time served in the Middle East and the haunted history he continues to carry with him — but she’s also asking what we owe to other people.
“Leave No Trace” is only Ms. Granik’s third fiction feature, and she is still finding ways to create and sustain narrative tension without the kind of genre beats that helped give “Winter’s Bone” its forward thrust. (Her feel for down-home alienation and the charisma of that movie’s breakout star, Jennifer Lawrence, did their part.) Here, Ms. Granik instead employs a restraint that worked so well in her documentary “Stray Dog.” She looks hard and by looking encourages us to see the beauty — and meaning — in the everyday: the velvety moss on a tree, the opalescent shimmer of a spider web and the tenderness that envelops Will and Tom, sustaining them and a story that occasionally drifts.
In its best moments, “Leave No Trace” invites you to simply be with its characters, to see and experience the world as they do. Empathy, the movie reminds you, is something that is too little asked of you either in life or in art. Both Mr. Foster’s and Ms. Harcourt McKenzie’s sensitive, tightly checked performances are critical in this regard; he holds you close to Will by keeping the character boarded up even as she draws you to Tom with anxious discretion and a heartbreaking vocal tremulousness that sometimes speaks louder than words. Neither actor begs for your heart, but each — like this movie — takes it.
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Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace opens with a traumatized veteran, Will (Ben Foster), and his young teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), living off the grid for years in the largest urban park in America, aptly named Forest Park, located in Portland, Oregon.
It becomes evident that Will’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the culprit that both characters must manage as he is obsessed with staying on the move, never setting up camp in one place for too long. It is fascinating to watch this duo navigate homelessness in a peaceful and accepting manner, albeit Will’s persistence to keep his young teenage daughter by his side in his anxious battle with isolation is challenging for the viewer to sympathize with. He rejects what is seemingly best for Tom after being essentially rescued and provided for by social services by escaping back into the wilderness to brave elements that are increasingly harsh the further north they travel.
This quiet story with meager dialogue becomes more unsettling as Tom, who is emotionally vulnerable throughout, wants to stay in one place and build a life. Her inner struggle is apparent, for she is devoted to her father, even as she calls attention that “his struggle is not hers.” The choices made in the end serve to honor the individual with compassion, understanding, and acceptance.
The Dove Take
This film grapples with poignant relationship dynamics surrounding issues of parenting, homelessness, discrimination, and mental illness, but it does so in a genuine and sensitive manner. Leave No Trace is awarded the Dove-Approved Seal for 12+.
Dove Rating Details
Though no drugs are seen being used, there is one short scene where Will sells his VA medication for profit as they have no other means of survival.
Will takes a bad fall and is seriously injured, and Tom experiences extreme discomfort due to exposure to the elements. Living on public land, they stay on the move in order to defy capture by the authorities. Fear and anxiety are often present.
Film information, dove content.
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Leave No Trace
- Ben Foster Will
- Thomasin McKenzie Tom
- Jeff Kober Mr. Walters
- Dale Dickey Dale
- Dana Millican Jean
- Michael J. Prosser James
- Marisa Anderson Musician at Party
- Michael Hurley Musician at Party
- Debra Granik Director , Screenwriter
- Dickon Hinchliffe Composer: Original Music
- Anne Rosellini Producer , Screenwriter
- Michael McDonough Cinematographer
- Chad Keith Production Designer
- Erin Orr Costume Designer
- Linda Reisman Producer
- Aaron L. Gilbert Executive Producer
- Chris Stinson Co-Producer
- Jane Rizzo Film Editor
- Kerry Barden Casting Director
- Jonathan Guggenheim Art Director
- Damian Volpe Re-Recording Mixer , Sound Editor
- Susan Jacobs Music Supervisor
- Suzana Peric Music Editor
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- bdurmaz 04 Jan 2019 22:29 GMT I was expecting to like this more report reported
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- simo000 15 Mar 2019 11:26 GMT u two blind? report reported
- diegojmv_ 23 May 2019 04:28 GMT I was waiting for something horrible to happen towards the end and I'm so glad it didn't. report reported
- killthepopular 25 Aug 2019 20:19 GMT Winter's bone was very good and this was too. Whether you can enjoy Kelly reichardt or Ramin bahrani films is a strong indicator of whether you will enjoy this. report reported
- tigerflash 20 Sep 2019 03:36 GMT Ben Foster is a great actor report reported
- GARFIELDACRES 03 Apr 2021 00:58 GMT Good performances, but the whole thing is understated to the point where I felt next to nothing about it. report reported
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LEAVE NO TRACE
"moving but anticlimactic father-daughter drama".
What You Need To Know:
Miscellaneous Immorality: Morally questionable acts such as illegally living on public land, characters go on the run in defiance of state orders, and characters commit illegal acts to maintain their freedom, such as breaking into a cabin, stealing food, and lying about their identities.
LEAVE NO TRACE is a captivating drama about the relationship between a father and a daughter as they search for the freedom to live in the wild. The movie’s understated tone leaves room for incredible performances by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, while the tension and the stakes of the drama grip the viewer until the end. The PG rating makes the movie more suitable for families, but the subject matter and slow pace might not make it enjoyable for younger audiences. Also, the ending is anticlimactic and doesn’t offer a resolution to the plot problem.
Away from society and modern technology, Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), live simple lives deep in the forest of an Oregon national park. As an ex-Marine with PTSD, Will teaches Tom survival techniques such as covering her tracks and hiding in the wilderness, while he gives her regular drills in case the park rangers try to find their camp. The only time they leave the wilderness is to make a supply run into town. Using money from his veteran benefits, Will and Tom stock up on groceries and supplies. On their way back into the national park, they stop at a similar camp full of war veterans. Will makes some extra cash by selling his prescription medicines to the vets.
Will and Tom enjoy their lives until the police and park rangers storm their camp. Both are taken into Social Services and questioned about their reasons for living in the wild away from society. When it becomes clear that neither are a danger, Will and Tom relocate to a small home on a farm. Tom assimilates well to farm life, but Will struggles to be a participating member of society.
When Will decides he can’t take it anymore, he takes Tom on the run up to Washington so the two can return to their lives in the wild. However, Tom isn’t so sure that their old life is the best thing for them anymore. Eventually, the struggles of surviving the wild and being on the run create a rift in their relationship.
LEAVE NO TRACE stands out as an exceptional movie in many ways. Ben Foster gives a tortured and heartfelt performance as Will, while newcomer Thomasin McKenzie carries the movie with her depth of emotions. This father-daughter relationship is the heart and soul of the movie, and both performances sell the tight bond between Will and Tom. Throughout the movie’s deliberate and contemplative pace, the stakes are not only physical survival but also the emotional survival of Will and Tom’s relationship, including the effect their trials have on their relationship. With gorgeous cinematography in the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, LEAVE NO TRACE is always riveting to watch from start to finish, but the unresolved open ending detracts from the movie’s power.
LEAVE NO TRACE also deals with some important themes in a subtle, contemplative way. Will and Tom enjoy their simple lives away from society. Tom makes a point to say that her father is an excellent teacher when questioned if she should be in school. However, the Social Services authorities become concerned about Tom’s social skills.
Will fears society and doesn’t know how to assimilate, while Tom embraces the community aspect of living among people. Numerous times throughout the movie, Will tries to escape people, only to find himself in need of the help of a community to survive. As Tom witnesses more of the beauty of a community of people “bearing one another’s’ burdens,” she no longer wants to live alone with her father.
It becomes clear that Will’s PTSD (and perhaps some other mental disorders from his service in the military) have damaged his ability to integrate himself fully into society the way that Tom can. While he still wants to give Tom a good life and a good education, his inability to become part of a community becomes a problem. He also has a dislike for the government but at the same time doesn’t have a problem taking veteran benefits to survive. This complex dichotomy creates a moral and political gray area for a movie that’s more interested in telling a personal story than a political one.
With a PG rating, this personal story isn’t bogged down by explicit content or foul language. This lack of overt negative, immoral content makes the story much more enjoyable.
However, the movie has other problems that stop it from being really family friendly. For example, despite his love for his daughter, Will’s preference for living in the wild clearly endangers her life and stifles her growth. Both he and Tom actively go against the wishes of Social Services. Also, while on the run, they take matters into their own hands, sometimes by breaking into cabins for shelter or stealing food. Finally, when they start living in the home on the farm, they start going to church to appear more stable to the well-meaning Social Services bureaucrats. In the church, Tom becomes fascinated with faith in God. After reading a church brochure, she tells her father, “Did you know God created Frogs,” but Will sarcastically replies, “Says who?” Finally, although Tom eventually decides to become part of society or the community, she doesn’t explore the idea of God and faith any further. Neither do she and her father reconcile at the end as they go their separate ways.
Thus, LEAVE NO TRACE doesn’t give viewers an uplifting, happy resolution to the plot problems in its story. It just comes to the anticlimactic, unsatisfying conclusion that the father is incapable of living in society while his daughter can no longer live in the wild. As the daughter tells her father at one point, “What’s wrong with me isn’t what’s wrong with you.” The movie makes both characters sympathetic, but media-wise viewers probably will side more with her and think the father should have made more of an effort to stay with his daughter.
MOVIEGUIDE® advises caution for LEAVE NO TRACE.
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