Film Review – Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace
In the midst of the expected summer blockbusters, there are smaller films that grapple for attention and your hard-earned money. Enter Leave No Trace, written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (both wrote the screenplay for Winter’s Bone) and based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Directed by Granik (who also directed Winter’s Bone), this small film takes a look at a war veteran’s PTSD and how it impacted his life and that of his daughter’s.
The film follows a father, Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), as they proceed through this period of life dominated by Will’s need to live apart from society and in as remote a location as he can feasibly live with a young daughter. This story begins in park forest land in Oregon and proceeds to other locations as Will and Tom are found out when Tom is spotted by a local runner. Even with offers of help and a new start in life, one more suited to having a daughter grow up in, Will continues to disintegrate in this constructed world provided to them. Tom is aghast at having to leave her new home and wondering when her father will stop and put her first and if he ever can.
Leave No Trace is simple in its premise, as it focuses on a father and daughter living the life that the father intends to, but what makes it more complicated is the reasons for their simple existence. It is a coping mechanism, intended to drown out the horrors of daily life that are simply too much to bear with the PTSD from Will’s time in a war zone. While Will is completely okay with how they live, and so is the Tom to an extent, their lifestyle does not meet with modern standards of child welfare and they are essentially squatting on park land without permission. They are held by the government authorities to figure out how to allow Will to exist in a better environment but one that still meets his coping needs, as well as to evaluate the mental health of Will considering he is the only parental figure for Tom.
While most of the film is focused on the relationship between Will and Tom, it also has a couple of supporting roles that are worth mentioning. Jeff Kober (China Beach) plays one of Will and Tom’s first big advocates, Mr. Walters, as he offers them a home on his property in return for work on his Christmas tree farm. This home appears to be Tom’s first real home in an unmentionable amount of years, and while Mr. Walters is stern, there is kindness and a heart that only wants the best for Tom and Will. The second role is Dale Dickey as Dale. Dickey has had an innumerable number of roles in both major feature films, small independents, and television series. She has a distinctive voice and face that can play good or bad, and here she is another savior to Will and Tom when their living situation becomes too hard. Her raspy voice lending advice and motherly concern to Tom while not judging how Will chooses to conduct his life is another heartwarming role.
With a film so focused on the relationship between father and daughter can rise or fall with the chemistry between its two actors. Fortunately, Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie work well off each other. Both have complicated roles, as Will has his own demons and Tom is growing up and learning about the world within the confines of what Will has shown her. There is no doubt that Will loves his daughter, but with the added struggles of PTSD, he is not able to be a “normal” father and loves her as only he can. There is a powerful moment at the end of the film when their relationship meets a crossroad, and each must decide what is more important to them, their well-being, both physically and emotionally, or being together. The struggle is not so much heard in their lines to each other than on their faces. Both actors are steadfast in their roles and understanding their character’s journey.
Leave No Trace is a quiet, yet complicated, father-daughter film and should be seen as one of the rare jewels of the films of 2018. The Pacific Northwest forest becomes a character itself, not just a setting, as Will looks to it as his refuge and the savior of his sanity and his daughter. The film brings up issues of child welfare, treatment of PTSD, and what we consider to be healthy relationships. There is a struggle for the audience to justify the life that Will leads when he has a young daughter, but also the realization that Will cannot live in the “normal” world. Is Will a bad father or just doing the best he can within the confines of what keeps him sane and safe? I don’t know that there is a correct answer and this could be a film that can be debated long after the credits have ended.