Out this week in cinemas is the touching and somber Leave No Trace starring Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. Leave No Trace follows the father-daughter duo of Tom (McKenzie) and her father (Foster). It should be noted at this point in the review that at no point in the film does the audience learn the father’s name. It’s this subtle choice in storytelling that makes Leave No Trace such a fascinating and deeply moving experience.
The film opens with Tom and her father living an isolated but peaceful life in the forests of Portland. It is suggested early in the film that this has been Tom’s life since she was very young as she knows nothing different. She knows of cities and the outside world but they are seen as nothing more than chores when supplies run low rather than a part of her life. She has been taught everything she believes she needs to know by her father and everything and everyone is content.
Unfortunately, Tom and her father are found and ripped away from their home and because of that their way of life. This sets into motion events that will change the course of their lives forever.
What stood out to me (and what always stands out to me when Ben Foster is in a film) is how fantastic Ben Foster is as Tom’s father. As a man clearly scarred by his past Foster says more in a single gesture than other characters say in whole sentences. Foster brings such heartbreaking depth to his character and his chemistry with his daughter Tom is just so potent that it leaves you in tears.
Not to be outclassed by Foster Thomasin McKenzie is (and I try to use this word sparingly) a revelation. She commands the screen, sometimes even wrestling it away from Foster. She is incredibly charming and pulls a lot of the emotional weight of the film. While her father retreats further into himself as the story unfolds Tom is having the opposite journey. She’s learning about the world first hand instead of learning about it from her father. It’s almost like a modern fairytale.
She’s a princess held in a location chosen by her father due to his prejudices against society and it’s not until she leaves its safety that she learns maybe the big bad world isn’t as scary as she was led to believe. What saves the film from falling into some tropes of this genre is the writing and directing. We learn enough about each character right when we need to and then what we don’t learn we are given enough information to figure out ourselves. It’s almost as if we’re trying to find their trail and director Debra Granik has left enough bread crumbs to help us along our way. On top of that, the cinematography is filled with beautiful imagery to help the audience understand why Tom and her father would choose to live away from society.
When the two enter cities the colour is almost drained from the screen but when they return to their home or travel further afield the beauty of nature shines through. It’s a masterstroke and these subtle changes in colour and camera angles all add up to give scenes their own personality. A particular highlight is a scene between the two and a beehive. It’s quite moving.
Leave No Trace is a wonderful film. The nuanced performances from its intimate cast are highly affecting and these characters stay with you after the sun sets on this story. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. I went in blind and came out so much better for it. This is the reason films are made, to tell stories, and this particular story is one of the best of the year.