“Leave No Trace”: Father-Daughter Isolation

Leave No Trace deserves the high praise it’s been receiving for the direction of Debra Granik, who was also behind Winter’s Bone, and the performances of both leads—Ben Foster (Will) and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie (Tom), who play father with PTSD and his teen daughter.

Moreover, echoed in various reviews: “…Leave No Trace is one of the best films of 2018 and promises to make a star of McKenzie” (David Sims, The Atlantic).

Adapted from Peter Rock‘s novel My Abandonment (2009), the hauntingly effective Leave No Trace “explores, with acute sensitivity and narrative finesse, how trauma molds a family’s life, threatens to spill over into the next generation, and might finally be withstood” (Inkoo Kang, Slate).

Which war Will fought in and why he suffers from PTSD, we never learn. Such details seem beside the point when we meet him and his daughter in Forest Park, a 5,000-acre natural preserve off downtown Portland, Oregon. Father and child sleep in a tent, drink rainwater, and subsist on boiled eggs and foraged mushrooms—and when that’s not enough, groceries from a nearby supermarket. (For money, Will sells prescription meds to a camp of veterans who have settled elsewhere in the park.) When Will and Tom are discovered by police—for sleeping on government property, not the drug deals—the authorities have just as much trouble categorizing them as we do. Will and the unschooled Tom aren’t exactly survivalists, or off the grid, or homeless, but there’s truth to those labels, too. The two would prefer to be left alone to their devices. But after officials place them in a comfortable home in a small town where Will is immediately offered a job and Tom encounters kids her own age, it becomes clearer how much wartime trauma has affected their lives—and how much further it’ll continue to do so.

Peter Debruge, Variety: “After being discovered in the nature preserve, Will and Tom are both interrogated by social workers. Our sympathy is with them, and yet, the authorities seem to have a point: Tom needs a chance to interact with other people, a fact McKenzie so effortlessly conveys via the wide-eyed curiosity Tom shows toward a world she has been taught to distrust, but which now holds considerable appeal for her — including not only boys, but the prospect of making friends her age.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “As the two are shuffled through a detainment center, we glimpse a conflict of humane impulses and inhuman tactics. Will is forced to endure a 468-question computerized test designed to look for PTSD that practically induces PTSD; the man administering the test, by contrast, makes a more direct emotional connection. Tom understands that the social worker (Dana Millican) assigned to her has the girl’s best interests in mind. The old farmer (Jeff Kober) who provides the two with a house wants to bring Will back into the working and religious fold. The enemies are elsewhere, setting policy and sending people like Will to war.”

The Trailer:

Selected Reviews

Tomris Laffly, rogerebert.com: “This gentle, miracle of a film is almost an antidote to Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic,” a 2016 Sundance title that explores similar themes in a comparatively showy, crude fashion.”

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com:  “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.”

Jon Frosch, Hollywood Reporter: “The filmmaker has crafted an unusual coming-of-age tale, in which a teen declares independence from her parent gradually, gingerly, with tact and consideration rather than rebelliousness.”

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