Leave No Trace

MIFF 2018 Film Review: ‘Leave No Trace’

The most intense bonds are often the most unstable

The best movies tell only the stories they need to tell, with only the resources they need. Directed by Debra Granik, Leave No Trace is perfectly minimal. Based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini, it’s about a father and a daughter who live in a makeshift home on public property, a massive park in Portland, Oregon.

A tarp protects them from the rain, they make fires with a flint and eat picked mushrooms among other gatherings, occasionally making trips into town for supplies. These early scenes are dialogue-sparse, with the daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) and father Will (Ben Foster) exchanging mostly necessities—who found what, can we eat it, where are we going next. Slipping through, however, are Tom’s more playful bits of chatter. She wants to take a necklace she finds in the dirt, she’s curious about passers-by despite her Dad’s strict rules—from the first few scenes, we can see a rift forming.

Rocks’ novel is based on a true case of a father and daughter living illegally off the land, a story begging to have the gaps filled in by talented storytellers. Things kick off in the film when Tom is spotted by a jogger who calls the police. The pair are taken in for questioning and given a place to live and work. Will cuts Christmas trees while Tom meets the locals including a farmer boy building a tiny house, while she awaits her first day of school. Despite their rescue and idyllic situation, Will wants to leave. Conveying the man’s reserved anxiety, Foster’s fretful eyes are like pinpoints peering out of a cave. His presence is felt, but he’s terribly far away.

A movie like this depends upon its performances, and Foster does a fantastic job as an ex-solider suffering PTSD, but newcomer McKenzie is a tremendous find. I was transfixed by the young actor’s walk, as she wanders along a road in a trailer park the pair hole up at. She’s playful and childlike, but there’s an intense solitary movement in her, a kind of aloneness that a script couldn’t describe and a camera can’t fake. She can’t make small talk like everyone else, but she’s inquisitive and deeply fascinated, becoming enamoured with a beekeeper’s collection.  McKenzie’s is one of the most mature performances I’ve seen all year—Granik, who first brought Jennifer Lawrence to the cinema in the excellent Winter’s Bone, has found another star.

As beautiful and affecting as the movie is, I felt frustrated by it. You are essentially watching a prolonged act of child abuse, as a disturbed father restricts his child from living a normal life. Their bond is devastatingly strong and Granik and co. do a wonderful job showing its conflicting nature, but it’s ultimately an uneasy film that tests audiences’ capacity for empathy.


Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.

Leave No Trace screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which is running from 2 – 19 August. Tickets and venue information available on the website.

The Plus Ones were invited guests of MIFF
Image credit: miff.com.au