Leave No Trace review: Ben Foster gives a career-best performance in Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik’s latest, a story of a father and daughter living off the grid in present-day Portland.
Leave No Trace review by Paul Heath.
From Debra Granik, the Oscar-winning director of Jennifer Lawrence break-out Winter’s Bone, comes this adaptation of Peter Rock’s book ‘My Abandonment‘, a film based on a true story about a father and daughter who disappear from the grid for a number of years before being suddenly reintroduced into society.
Ben Foster is Will, an Army veteran who has taken his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) to live on a nature preserve just off the downtown area of Portland, Oregon. This is no hostile taking – the mother’s absence never explained – as the two share a close bond, living off the land, only returning to the more populated areas of the city for necessities, and for the father to collect painkillers (which he then sells on). 13-year-old Tom is schooled appropriately, and educated in every needed to survive on her own in the wilderness. They live amongst expertly built natural shelter, holes in the dirt providing water-tight storage for their important documents, their food largely coming from foraging in the forest and their water from strategically-placed collecting pots all around them. Their idealistic life is altered one day when Tom is spotted by a hitch-hiker, an incident which will set the ball rolling to change their lives for good.
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Ben Foster is no stranger to playing servicemen – in fact, the press notes tell us that the very gifted actor takes an interest in former army veterans’ lives after conflict – and his extensive knowledge and research clearly pays off in a very nuanced, muted role, one which you don’t expect at first. The bond between him and his daughter is great, his reserved, patient performance as Will one of the best of his career so far. McKenzie is also excellent as Tom, the actress dominating pretty much every scene. Will is direction-less, though obviously measured with an expectation of routine – but the character isn’t able to stay in one place for long – unless he’s in control of it. Tom, on the other hand, wants something more from life – she’s doesn’t have what her father has – as she says during the film’s final reel, and her spotting by a hitch-hiker in act one may have been more than coincidental.
What is clear is that there is a definite, loving bond between the two, one where either one would do anything for the other – and again, like many other films playing here in Cannes this year, we see family as a strong subject matter – here, once again a young teenager having to fill absent shoes of a matriach; a person to provide guidance and level-headedness at a time of need. McKenzie not only pulls that off, but somehow manages to pour an additional sense of innocence into her performance – one which shoukld proper her career forward even more, and even bring some award interest.
The filmmaking style is very unspectacular, thus making it utterly believable and natural, Granik possibly bettering her work on the Oscar-pleasing Winter’s Bone. A nomination (at least) for this is a cert.
I came away with a huge sense of humility – and indeed hope. The film has a very positive message, and rather than depicting a world of public dismissal, and negativity, actually shows one full of positivity and the goodness in people – in this case random strangers.
This is a first-class piece of work from all involved. One of the best, most involving and truly thought-inducing films of the year so far.
Leave No Trace review by Paul Heath, May 2018.
Leave No Trace will be released in the UK on 29th June 2018. It was reviewed at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.