Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie
Directed by: Debra Granik
Running Time: 1 hr 49 mins
Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars
Has another star been born thanks to director/writer Debra Granik? While watching the powerful performance delivered by New Zealand-born actress Thomasin McKenzie in the new drama “Leave No Trace,” it is impossible to not think about what Granik once pulled out of a relatively unknown young actress named Jennifer Lawrence. It is perhaps an unfair comparison considering that Lawrence received the first of her four Oscar nominations for her role as a tough, teenage Ozarks girl in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” However, McKenzie, whose previous experience has primarily consisted of TV work, has, at roughly the same age as Lawrence was eight years ago, provided something that is special to watch on the silver screen. Through her eyes alone she projects her character’s tough, determined nature which she also reveals is just a façade masking a 13-year-old girl’s desperation to please a father traumatized by war.
The present-day setting for “Leave No Trace” is a heavily forested park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Widowed veteran Will (Ben Foster, Hell or High Water, The Messenger) and his daughter, Tom (McKenzie) live an isolated existence in the often damp and rainy woods. They survive by scavenging for food that nature provides them with only a few creature comforts of modern society. Will drills her on hiding techniques by making sure she leaves no trace of where she is at. Occasionally, they walk into Portland where he checks into a Veterans Administration hospital to get medications he later sells to other struggling vets to buy necessities for their life in the woods.
Their existence is changed forever when they are discovered by park rangers and law enforcement. Each is subsequently given a series of tests with social services questioning if she has ever been violated by her father. The system gives them a second chance to have a conventional life together as they are placed in a residence on tree/horse farm where Will is given a job. This new sense of normalcy is too much for Will as he cannot bring himself to be a part of society. The opposite happens with Tom whose introduction to a life outside of the one with her damaged father sparks a sense of curiosity within her and a desire to be a part of something more. This puts them on a collision course that will test the bonds of their relationship.
Based upon the 2009 book “My Abandonment” by American novelist Peter Rock, “Leave No Trace,” which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, is a moving work of genuine sadness that will pull at the heartstrings of anyone who has a heart. McKenzie is a revelation of such proportions that it is hard to think of another young actress who has demonstrated this level of promise since Lawrence. Her delivery is flawless as she brilliantly plays a young girl who has been forced to grow up faster than anyone her age ever should. There is a certain sense of tragedy about her, yet you can tell it has also forged an iron determination within her.
I would be negligent if I did not mention Foster who once again demonstrates how skillful of actor he has become in recent years. Pain leaks out of every pour in Foster’s skin as his character is so consumed by PTSD from combat that he is putting Tom in danger every day they are on the run without thinking about what he is doing. Unfortunately, like someone from a Greek tragedy Will is man who has fallen so far and is so broken that he simply cannot be fixed again. Foster does not have a lot of extensive dialogue to recite but his quiet moments speak volumes.
Although her story lacks the complexity of “Winter’s Bone,” Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, also a producer and writer on “Winter’s Bone,” has created something that will haunt you for a while after leaving the theater.