The picturesque setting of Oregon’s forests, gorgeously depicted in Leave No Trace, is as alluring a place to escape to as you’ll find and a backdrop that’s the opposite of the industrialised American society Will (Ben Foster) has dropped out of. As the film opens, the military vet leads a minimalist life in a national park with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (New Zealander Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, earning every ounce of the praise leveled at her performance). Their existence is largely self-sufficient, conspiratorially secretive, and romantically rejects society’s dominant capitalist paradigm – but it’s also illegal, and as a consequence is brought to a close early on.
If you’re looking for a how-to guide detailing the time-honoured tradition of “going bush,” this isn’t what Leave No Trace offers. Patiently depicting Will’s relationship with Tom, the film is less woodland thriller, more a chronicle of Tom’s growth, a process that can’t be constrained by her dad’s war trauma and his consequent rejection of society. Make no mistake, though – the pair’s forced transition into mainstream life is as much a matter of survival for Will (and a test of the close bond he shares with Tom) as any outdoor escapade.
McKenzie vividly depicts Tom’s internal life in a can’t-be-missed performance – nuanced, naturalistic and seamless in bringing to life her character throughout this unconventional coming-of-age story. While Tom and Will share a relationship light on verbal communication, McKenzie and Foster convey the pair’s emotional connection, a convincing pairing in both mundane and more intense moments. Foster, too, proves a quietly moving presence, a tragic figure who’s not oversold by the actor or the film’s narrative.
Director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) keeps us spellbound by a duo geographically and emotionally isolated from society. As it irresistibly encourages the viewer to invest in its characters, Leave No Trace proves to be an example of the magic that can be conjured by a filmmaker and their actors.