“Leave No Trace” review by Nate Blake

Directed by: Debra Granik

Length: 109 minutes

Rated: PG

I missed “Leave No Trace” when it was in theaters this summer, but it is out on Vudu as of today. It’s one of the best films of the year and quite possibly the best live action PG rated film since the 1990s.

The film opens with Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) living illegally on public land in a park near Portland, Oregon. Will is a veteran who suffers from PTSD. He and Tom have been living nearly isolated from society for a while, though they do occasionally venture into the city to shop for supplies. They live off the land as much as they can, and Will seems to have done a very fine job of providing an education for his daughter.

Their lives change when Tom is spotted by a jogger and police officers take her and Will into custody. I’ll stop with plot details from this point forward. You should discover as much of this adventure on your own as you can. The film is based on a book by Peter Rock, but if, like me, you haven’t read it, I am not even going to state the book’s title here. It hints at the ending. I will say, I am intrigued to read the book (which I hadn’t heard of before) now that I’ve seen this film.  It’s a quietly gripping experience that never lets up.

Will (Ben Foster) is taken into custody by police. 

Granik and Anne Rosellini deliver a script that wisely keeps the conflict between Will and Tom in almost every scene. The film tackles a lot of issues that could cause less skilled writers to go off in many directions. There is no kitchen sink approach here, and the result is marvelous.

Also deserving of much praise are Foster and McKenzie. They prove themselves masters of subtlety in every interaction. Although there is plenty of dialogue between them, much of the drama relies heavily on non-verbal reactions. None of them ever seem over the top, and they help deliver an ending that is emotional, devastating, earned and perfectly executed. I honestly didn’t expect this much of a resolution to the story in a film like this, but it works, and I’m glad that Granik had the guts to go through with it.

Director Debra Granik (right) discusses a scene with Thomasin McKenzie.

Technically speaking, the artistry on display here is stunning. Sound is used effectively to really get you in Will’s head and help you understand why living and working in the modern world is something he absolutely can’t handle. The cinematography is also gorgeous. I’ve read that most of the outdoor scenes were shot in in Eagle Fern Park in Clackamas County, Oregon. I’ve always wanted to visit the Pacific Northwest and the scenery provided here will probably motivate me to start saving those pennies, though I doubt I will rough it anywhere close to the way Will and Tom do.

One of the handful of outdoor scenes not shot in Eagle Fern Park. 

In terms of flaws, they are pretty minor, but while I don’t think this story requires a ton of exposition, I think the audience should get a little more than is provided here. For instance, we never learn how long Will and Tom have been living in the forest before they are discovered. That information would help the audience with some questions they may ask during the film’s last 40 minutes. It’s a bit of a nuisance but nowhere near enough to ruin the experience.

This is a beautifully crafted film that tells a simple but powerful story and features fine performances. I am eager to see what Foster, Granik and McKenzie do next, and even though I only finished watching “Leave No Trace” about an hour ago, I can’t wait to watch it again. I hope you’ll check it out.

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