Leave No Trace

Director: Debra Granik
Screenplay: Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini
Cast: Thomasin Harcourt-McKenzie, Ben Foster, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican

109 mins, USA, 2018

Debra Granik’s film about a 13-year-old girl living with her traumatised war vet father in the wild woods of an Oregon national park is as powerful – although less violent – as Winter’s Bone (2010), and as concerned with the daily lives of people who live outside the mainstream.

‘Gestures are photogenic,’ I heard Debra Granik say in an interview with Francine Stock on the Film Programme. ‘We love to watch people complete things on screen.’ And so we carefully watch 13-year-old Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) ‘feather’ a piece of wood to make kindling for the fire; we watch her father Will (Ben Foster) set up a tarpaulin to catch rainwater; we watch the two of them race into the deep undergrowth at the sound of the park rangers with their sniffer dogs.
The film is based on a novel by Peter Rock, My Abandonment, that was itself inspired by a true story; the actors underwent some immersive learning in survival skills (Debra Granik told Francine Stock) and the film’s commitment to realistic detail is persuasive.

Claire Herford says: Leave No Trace is a heartfelt and thought provoking film about an army vet and his 13 year old daughter living off grid in a wilderness public park in Oregon. It is beautifully filmed and well acted, especially the portrayal of Tom, the teenage girl, by Thomasin Harcourt-McKenzie.  It moves powerfully towards a sad, but inevitable, denouement.

I was expecting a drama along the lines of Room (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel), or Claire Fuller’s father-and-daughter survivalist novel Our Endless Numbered Days, but Leave No Trace is altogether quieter and more low-key. I sort of felt that maybe it’s because so many women were involved in making the film – Debra Granik wrote the screenplay with Anne Rossellini, who also co-wrote Winter’s Bone, and the rest of the production team is mainly women – that it provides such a subtle sympathetic look at a young teenage girl, and at her troubled father.
LNT 1   We don’t really know what traumatic event or series of events has so affected Will – the phrase ‘suicide squad’ is slipped past us without any particular details.
Ben Foster plays Will with dignity and reserve. Thomasin Harcourt-McKenzie’s Tom is subtle and sensitive, torn between love and loyalty to her father, and wanting to live a life that is – well – a bit more normal. There’s a sweet scene when, after the intervention of social services and during the brief time the pair are living inside four walls, she meets a boy of about her own age, and goes with him to a ‘bunny club’, where local teenagers meet up and learn how to look after their pet rabbits. LNT 3
We see that her empathy with the natural world – in another lovely scene she learns how to open a bee-hive, and then with a gentle wonder shows the bees to her father – doesn’t separate her from her own kind, but rather is part of a yearning to connect, with other creatures as well as with people.
As Claire says, there is an inevitability to the denouement. It’s sad – but not too sad, I’m happy to be able to report.

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