Leave No Trace (2018)
Framing a story through the outlier’s point of view is a self-reflective device that makes us to look at ourselves through the eyes of the marginalised other. It usually adopts a single perspective but Leave No Trace (2018) is as multi-layered as a Russian doll. Homelessness, poverty, single-parenting, post-traumatic stress disorder, and life off-the-grid are just some of the themes woven into this finely balanced film.
The ruggedly beautiful opening scenes show a father and daughter appearing to be camping in the wilderness. Silent but for the sound of nature, they forage, taste nature’s bounty, and communicate by gesture. The father, Will (Ben Foster), is a war veteran with chronic PTSD and cannot stand the confinement of conventional accommodation. His teenage daughter, androgynously named Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), has been raised by Will since infancy and is as adept at chess and reading literature as she is at hunting in the wild. They are close, sleep together for warmth, and the forest is their home. That is until a walker spots them and police are brought in.
Immediately applying labels like homeless and potential abusive relationship, the authorities subject them to the kind of interrogation that presumes the worst. We, the audience, are complicit in this process. When suspicion lifts, Will is praised for how well he has raised Tom but they are not permitted to return to their forest home. Social service accommodation is found, but Will soon flees again and Tom must follow. The cycle is repeated until the rapidly maturing Tom must face either a life running from Will’s war torments or claim her independence, put down roots, and let him go.
This film works on all levels. The cinematography has a docu-drama feel, with hand-held camera-work that intimately observes the father and daughter bond. This is pitched perfectly because of the understated authenticity of performance by Foster and McKenzie. It must have been tempting to dramatize the veteran’s trauma but here it is expressed entirely through Foster’s eyes and silent stare. McKenzie consumes her role, emerging from the cocoon of adolescence to a butterfly, vibrant, caring, and grounded in self-belief. The dynamic between them is the scaffold that raises the story beyond expectations.
It would be challenging to find another film that could more appropriately carry the ‘hybrid genre’ label. Strands of adventure story, a coming of age tale, a road trip, and a drama, are all present but none dominate. Nor does the film offer an easy solution to helping people like Tom and Will. This is an engaging and touching tale that leaves a warm glow.
Sydney Film Festival 2018
Director: Debra Granik
Stars: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie