Director Debra Granik draws out great performances, particularly from young actors (see Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout and Academy Award-nominated role in Granik’s Winter’s Bone). Thomasin McKenzie, as Tom, feels authentically real. Ben Foster gives the performance of his career – it’s a knockout. Leave No Trace doesn’t have a false note in it.
The facts about homeless veterans are astounding. Just last year, a report was issued in December 2017: for the first time in seven years, homeless veterans increased, mostly seen on the West Coast. The majority are male (with 9% being female). For the most part, most are single, live in urban areas, have alcohol or substance abuse issues, and suffer from mental illness. Over 11% of the adult homeless population alone are veterans. Again: 11% of the adult homeless population are veterans who have served their country. You might find it more shocking that 30% of all homeless people in the United States are families.
When we meet Will (Ben Foster, one career-topping performance after another), he lives a lush, green existence in Forrest Park Nature reserve, just outside Portland, Oregon. He utilizes everything he can find off the land, squatting in dark soil while eating plants directly from the ground, picking berries and mushrooms, and cooking them up for lunch and dinner. He has gone off the grid and doesn’t want to live within society’s structure. Will is a homeless veteran who has been hit hard by life too many times to live any other way than he knows how. The issue is he has his teenage daughter and has brought her along for the ride that we can only assume has been going on for quite some time.
Will is an Iraq War veteran and lost his wife. It was so long ago that his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, a real find here), can’t remember her. They go into town only when they need to pick up medication from the local VA hospital and sell the medications for some cash to buy supplies. When a local jogger spots Tom, the police and social services apprehend them to crack down on the homeless population on public land. Will and Tom can’t seem to find a place off the grid without some do-gooder trying to help them, especially since they haven’t asked. Soon, they are off and about again, looking for a place to call their own.
Leave No Trace was directed by Debra Granik and adapted from the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock; Granik has cut her teeth in the film by working as a cinematographer in documentaries and shorts films before her debut Down to the Bone. The result is a grounded feel that feels honest, with no trace of sensationalism. Courtesy of cinematographer Michael McDonough, Leave No Trace provides some of the most soulful shots of nature in recent memory. The natural lights, colors, and shadows of the Pacific Northwest landscape are used as characters all their own.
Thomasin McKenzie’s eyes are a gateway to her character’s thinking and the very definition of “Less is more.” With one stoic look, you can see she is torn between wanting to take care of her father and her own natural autonomy and desire for more from life. Her performance feels authentically real and doesn’t have a false note in it. Just look at Granik’s previous film and Jennifer Lawrence’s first, Winter’s Bone. She knows how to draw out great performances from young and inexperienced actors and, most importantly, writes strong female characters. McKenzie is sensational in her first lead role (and only the third film on her resume) and has a bright future ahead of her.
Ben Foster has been doing solid work in Hollywood for years. Since his breakout role in 13:10 to Yuma, or as a soldier transferred to the casualty notification officer in The Messenger, or his Academy Award-nominated turn as an undisciplined, hot-headed banker robber in Hell or High Water, his roles only get better with age. He suffers from post-traumatic stress that leads to his trouble sleeping, nightmares, and, most of all, depression. He is a true character actor who can fit in multiple types and be the yin to someone’s yang. His role in Leave No Trace is a clinical lesson in brooding restraint.
A lot has been made of this father-daughter relationship between Will and Tom. The fact of the matter is it’s not a healthy one. And you know what, that’s okay. This isn’t your feel-good film or summer thriller. Will has a mental illness that is preventing him from making a proper home for his daughter. That is child abuse. That’s honest. That’s real. It’s practically an imperfectly perfect look at mental illness. This is what separates the Skyscrapers of the world from films that transcend the medium. That’s what Leave No Trace is a compassionate piece of artistic film-making at its very best.