Leave No Trace - Movie Review by Ben Cahamer

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Leave No Trace


Directed by Debra Granik

Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini based on ‘My Abandonment’ by Peter Rock

Starring Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey


As a human, one of the greatest experiences I have had the privilege of enjoying is being able to explore my surroundings, to move about without fear of repercussions of sorts. I am aware that everywhere I go a footprint of my existence in that moment is recorded; a stone turned over, a fallen branch, a footprint in the earth, a wrapper from a candy bar or uneaten food. I alter the environment around me. Yet the environment adapts to me at the same time. There is a precarious balance, a harmony between human and nature.

Debra Granik’s fascinating and brilliant “Leave No Trace” explores what happens when that environment is up ended, as it is for Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The foundation of their father-daughter relationship is survival and Granik’s purposeful direction supports this as we learn more about them. They have made a home within an urban park, living off the land, with nothing much more than the clothes on their back, some simple utensils and cooking apparatuses. They have a tarpaulin cover to protect themselves from the elements and they forage for most of their food.

The dialog is natural between the two, but you can tell that Will is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. As methodical as Granik’s direction is so too is their conversation: there is a natural flow about it as if we are nature observing their interactions, but it is direct and to the point. It leaves no quarter for questions and no traces of their past. Yet, Tom is very well educated.

What’s so fascinating about the construct of the film and the performances is that we realize that even though they are “off the grid,” they are actually not too far removed from the everyday conveniences of modern life and that despite their choices, they need some of the services of modern society. The result of the decision to live off the grid eventually catches up with them.

When they are first discovered there is a wide angle shot between Tom and Jean Bauer (Dana Millican) where Tom is on the left side of the frame, Jean is on the right side a thick tree separates them. The composition of the shot is the turning point in the story, but also defines the gulf between Tom and by extension, Will’s existence off the grid and their future journey. This is the visual power of their story.

It is important to note that they are not drifters. The story makes a point to show that even with his back to the wall, Will can be a meaningful contributor to society, but Will cannot comply with the demands society puts on him. Something ingenious happens within the story at this point as a subtle shift between Tom and Will happens. This shift is as much a tribute to Foster and McKenzie’s performances as it is Granik’s direction.

While we might be quick to feel badly for Will and Tom’s situation or to judge them for their choices, we are encouraged to look beyond their environment. They successfully adapted to their surroundings and the surroundings adapted to them. As they are forced to reintegrate with society, we find that society is not as forgiving as nature is.

Their perseverance to be humans and individuals is as remarkable as the film is.

4 out of 4 stars