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‘Leave No Trace’ (review)

Produced by Anne Harrison,
Linda Reisman, Anne Rosellini

Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
Based on My Abandonment by Peter Rock
Directed by Debra Granik
Starring Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie,
Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey

 

Like Winter’s Bone, the breakout film for both cowriter-director Debra Granik and star Jennifer Lawrence, Leave No Trace is about a family living — or barely existing — on the margins of society.

And it features another awards-worthy performance from New Zealand-born newcomer Thomasin McKenzie.

As Tom, a teenager who’s been taught how to survive unseen in the forest by her war vet father (Ben Foster), McKenzie balances loyalty to her dad and pride in their self-reliance with curiosity about the rest of the world.

It’s a layered, complex performance that stays with you.

It also evokes River Phoenix’s (also Oscar-nominated) performance in 1988’s Running on Empty.

Like Phoenix’s character Danny, Tom is approaching the age when she’s beginning to question her dad’s decisions. While he wants to avoid society completely, she’s anxious to connect with other people. Inevitably, the two face off about Tom’s future.

The film is based on a novel by Peter Rock, which was inspired by the a true story of a 13-year-old and her father who lived off the grid in a Portland national park. It’s also informed by Granik’s previous film, a documentary called Stray Dog, about Vietnam Vet Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, which lends a quiet authenticity to the movie.

Unlike Winter’s Bone, this is not a crime drama, just a slowly unfolding drama. There’s no body parts, no mystery, no criminal gang. The only “villains” in the film are the authorities and other helpful strangers who Will wants so desperately to avoid.

Despite Will being a vet with PTSD, the role is not a showy one. Foster’s carved out a career as a fascinatingly offbeat character actor (such as his scene stealing performances in 3:10 to Yuma and otherwise forgettable thrillers like Hostel); As a leading man, he’s much more subdued.

While Foster doesn’t have to say much to convey Will’s anguish, you’re left wishing he had at least one big scene, if only for the inevitable Oscar reel. One of my favorite moments: The small, wordless scene he shares with a horse in a stable after he and Tom have been forced to live like regular people. In a more obvious film, he’d let the horse out and enviously watch as it ran free. Instead, he just quietly presses his head against the horse’s, seeming to commune with it on a level he can’t achieve with any humans.

Oscar scorecards shouldn’t really matter when you’re absorbed in a well-told drama such as this one. It just would be nice to see Foster finally get some recognition.

He was terrific in Oren Moverman’s 2009 military drama The Messenger, but it was his more famous costar, Woody Harrelson, who got an Oscar nomination for that one. And hardly anyone saw him as Lance Armstrong in 2015’s The Program.

I don’t think I need to worry on McKenzie’s behalf. This is a star-making performance. I only hope she doesn’t get swept up and spat out by the Hollywood machine like so many young actors.

I guess I feel a bit protective of her after this movie. Like Will, who just wants to keep the world from taking the kind of toll on her it took on him.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

 

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