Leave No Trace
is quiet, assured, and one of the year's better films. It doesn't spell a lot of things out for the audience, and there are a lot of moments that rely simply on atmosphere and the actor's faces in order to get the point across. And yet, the movie is constantly absorbing, and as thrilling as any drama can be. This is one of those movies that you should go out of your way to see, and want to tell others to see as soon as possible.
Writer-director Debra Granik has a talent for discovering new female acting talent. Her last film, 2010's Winter's Bone
, was the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence's career. With this movie, she introduces us to Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young actress from New Zealand, and one of the true breakout performances of the year. She gives an Oscar-worthy portrayal as Tom, a 13-year-old girl who lives in the forest along with her veteran father Will (Ben Foster, also powerful here). He has PTSD after his time fighting in the war, and cannot handle modern life anymore ever since the death of his wife when Tom was very young. And so the two have been living "off the grid", only going into town for Tom's required medications and other necessities when needed.
This life is the one that Tom has known for as long as she can probably remember, and she has a loving relationship with her dad. They collect rainwater, gather mushrooms, build tents, and rely on one another for protection from wild animals. Will makes what little money he has by selling his medications to dealers. We learn little about their lives and what led to them living this way, and this is intentional. We don't get to see any flashbacks to Will's days as a soldier, and we don't see the events that led to them living this way. We figure things out just by watching them living their daily lives. But one day, they are discovered, and both are forced by the government to work their way through social services if they want to remain together. The social workers are kind to young Tom, and are even impressed by her knowledge and what her father has taught her. Will, meanwhile, has to answer a bunch of questions about his mental state, which he soundly fails. This leads to the two having to live in a home in a rural community.
Leave No Trace
ultimately becomes a story of how this close father and daughter relationship becomes divided when Tom experiences modern society for the first time, and learns to enjoy it. She likes the people she meets, especially a young boy her age (Isaiah Stone) who raises rabbits for local 4H competitions. She also learns about bike riding and beekeeping, and becomes fascinated by it all. Will, however, becomes restless in a home environment. He wants to go back to where they were, but the question becomes if he has his daughter's best interests in mind. This is not a movie where the drama is overplayed, the music swells, and there are "powerful" moments where the actors perform scripted speeches explaining their views. We can simply see the pain on the faces of these two as they feel they are being pulled apart, because they both want something different.
There is naturally still love between them, but Tom simply begins to realize that the life her father lives does not have to be her own, and that she can choose her own way. Will, meanwhile, has to learn to let go and maybe realize that he has been holding his daughter back in some way. The way that the movie expresses this is incredibly powerful, yet never overstated. As glimmers of hope begin to form for a better life for Tom, we also see how hard it is on her, because she has so much respect for her dad. She never exactly expresses this in dialogue, but we can see it in so many other ways. This is a wonderfully subtle movie that captures the emotion of love, loss and letting go with minimal storytelling. And by the time we get to the film's quiet but striking final scene, we are incredibly moved by the simple image we see.
Leave No Trace
manages to be a unique but accessible film that should speak to just about anyone who watches it. Its tremendous power and grace comes from the fact that the movie trusts in its audience, and never feels the need to explain more than it does. But more than that, it introduces us to a remarkable debut performance by a young actress who hopefully will go on to even better things.