Directed by: Debra Granik
Premise: A father and his teenage daughter (Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie) live off the land in a national park in the Pacific Northwest. When they are discovered, the father and daughter are pulled between the freedom of life on the road and the stability of society.
What Works: Stories about the conflict between man and society are often vague. These sorts of conflicts are generally too broad to create a vivid and accessible tension. Leave No Trace is an example of this kind of story done well in part because of the complementary family storyline. The movie opens with a father and his teenage daughter living off the land in a national park. The two of them know what they are doing and have achieved a comfortable stasis with their surroundings. But when they are discovered, the father and daughter are arrested for squatting on public land and social services puts them in a home under observation. From there, the daughter is pulled toward stability and opportunities for socialization while the father is restless and wants to get back on the road. This craving for independence and isolation on the father’s part is intense and we can see the restlessness in Ben Foster’s performance. His rejection of society is so severe that he puts his daughter at risk and robs her of opportunities to have meaningful connections with other people. The daughter loves her father and wants to be with him but she is understandably drawn to community. Thomasin McKenzie’s performance hinges on that tension and it grows over the course of the film. The very premise is a curious inversion. Traditionally, parents nest and create a stable home life and that their children must leave. The reversal of the parent-child roles is a key element of Leave No Trace and McKenzie’s character gradually comes to understand that something is wrong with her father. Their relationship feels authentic and it is has a lot of unspoken depth. There is a lot in Leave No Trace that is left for us to infer and the filmmakers smartly allow the story to playout in an observational way. The film is also well shot with a feel for the landscape. The woods of the Pacific Northwest are lush and green and when the weather turns cold we can feel the chill.
What Doesn’t: Leave No Trace leaves us wanting a bit more from its story. The father’s determination to live independently and apart from society is quite vivid but his reasons for doing so are never explained. It’s implied that he is a military veteran and that his vagrancy is a way of coping with post-traumatic stress. But we don’t get much more than that and the parental character remains at a distance. That may be part of the point, as the movie unfolds from the daughter’s point of view and her father is a mystery to her. The budding conflict of Leave No Trace is between the father and daughter and how Thomasin McKenzie’s character is torn between allegiance to her father and the craving for social life and stability. This would be stronger if the film did more with the daughter’s encounters with society. She has moments of connection with the mainstream world but she never makes the kind of investment that would strengthen the conflict and force her to the final confrontation with her father.
DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, and an image gallery.
Bottom Line: Leave No Trace is a poignant father-daughter story. The movie leaves the viewer to figure out many of the details, perhaps a few too many, but it is a smart and emotionally honest story.
Episode: #727 (December 2, 2018)