Film & Television

Leave No Trace: Director Debra Granik Returns with the Summer’s Most Powerful Movie

From the very start, Leave No Trace is exceptionally and emotionally engaging. It also presents the audience with a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, there is always the threat of real danger. Racked with PTSD, Will is barely holding it together (and may be doing so just for the sake of his beloved daughter). The authorities have the right to separate the family and destroy the private world they’ve built. Tom, just thirteen years old, could easily be victimized (on two separate occasions, she’s asked about her relationship with her father: “Are you in danger?” “Have you ever been touched inappropriately?”). In one early scene, Will and Tom are even threatened by wild dogs. Their life together is never wholly safe.

On the other hand, virtually every person they encounter is kind and generous. The social worker really does want to help. The two girls Tom meets in the detention center offer her art supplies to make a vision board. The truck driver welcomes their company. A fellow vet lends Will his emotional support dog. A farmer gently teaches Tom how to tend bees. One gets the sense that the demons they’ve hidden themselves away from exist only in Will’s mind. One also wonders how much he may have damaged Tom in his efforts to protect her.

From the spare script to the meticulous pacing to close-ups of a dew drizzled spider’s web, Granik’s filmmaking is top shelf. (Remarkably, Leave No Trace is only her fourth full-length film; in addition to Winter’s Bone and Stray Dog, she directed Down to the Bone with Vera Farmiga in 2004.) In addition to her other gifts, she seems to have an extraordinary eye for casting.

Ben Foster, a familiar character actor (acclaimed for his supporting role in 2016’s Hell or High Water) is solid as Will. Granik and Rossellini don’t spell out exactly how or why Will is damaged, but Foster’s performance is utterly believable regardless. He is at once quietly unassuming and a caged animal. And throughout, the strength of his bond with his daughter is undeniable.

Tom is played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young actress from New Zealand (and granddaughter of celebrated actress Dame Kate Harcourt). She is so full of heart and hope that it’s hard to take your eyes from her. Forced to grow up too soon, she is Will’s pupil, but also his caretaker. She’s curious about the greater world, surprisingly forthright and bold given how she’s been raised. But, she’s desperately afraid of losing her father. She isn’t given too much to say, but McKenzie communicates her complex character with every subtle look and gesture. When she’s close to tears as the movie leans in to her difficult decision, her chin barely quivers. It’s the slightest movement, but more eloquent than spoken lines could possibly be.

Will Thomasin McKenzie become the next Jennifer Lawrence? She certainly might.

More importantly, will Debra Granik make us wait another eight years for her next narrative film?

I certainly hope not.


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