A handful of good performances and some nice character dynamics save Debra Granik's somewhat disappointing third narrative feature.
Whilst the Sundance Film Festival is perhaps most highly regarded for introducing new directors to the industry – see the arrival of Ari Aster and Hereditary – it’s always welcoming to returning artists, just ask Crystal Moselle. As something of a veteran now, Debra Granik arguably ranks among the most critically successful and revered independent directors working today, her previous film – the Jennifer Lawrence-breakout piece Winter’s Bone – debuted at Sundance in 2010, winning the Grand Jury Prize and going on to score a slew of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Actress for Lawrence. 8 years later, Granik is back with another frontier-inspired, quiet entry into her filmography, Leave No Trace.
Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are a father-daughter duo who live an idyllic life in the Portland wilderness, free from societal conventions and authority. However, when one small error upturns their situation, the pair’s lives are irrevocably changed. It is immediately striking how Leave No Trace shares several thematic similarities with the aforementioned Winter’s Bone; Granik’s fascinations with the presentation of fatherhood, the experience of the child in relation to their father, the struggle to survive, and the contrast of the self to the world around them all carry over into Leave No Trace.
Long one of the industry’s most unsung players, Ben Foster adds another impressive performance to his repertoire, continuing to, arguably, be the best thing about any movie he is in. The character of Will carries a clear fragility and deep-rooted discomfort, and whilst the film does not delve into Will’s complexities and backstory nearly as much as it should, Foster still makes the most of what he is given and delivers a scarred and sensitive performance. As his daughter, Thomasin McKenzie too is limited in what she has, offering a solid, if unspectacular display of a girl who is both resourceful and independent, yet still finds the need to align with the support and kindliness of others. The central father-daughter dynamic is strong, the two actors work with a good understanding of one another and their characters both complement each other and clash with convincing results. Every now and then, there is a smattering of smaller characters thrown into the mix, but they are frustratingly introduced and discarded too quickly, despite their pleasant chemistry with Will and Tom and somewhat resonant impact.
Whilst Leave No Trace is undoubtedly directed with Granik’s trademark quieter style, the film moves with a good pace and solid structure, despite hitting several familiar and predictable survival-story beats. Granik, however, does manage to craft the environment of the film with a tangible lure. A picturesque, dream-like quality is cast upon the forests and valleys which Will and Tom traverse, the small communities that the pair come across offer a free, alluring lifestyle that Granik presents as an ideal, both for us and the characters. In and among the cold, the dirt and the dew, the possibility of escaping into the wild come the end credits doesn’t seem all that bad.
Where the film frustratingly falters is in its story. We are left with little detail as to how Will and Tom arrived at their current predicament, Will’s backstory is hinted at but never properly explored or applied to the film. The pair’s motivations seem thin and constantly shifting, one minute they are on the same page, the next there is a drastic shift out of line with their individual development. Whilst Tom is given an overall arc, the actual material given to McKenzie to portray this arc is thin. Leave No Trace wants to sink in and leave an effect, and whilst it does to an extent, thanks mainly to Foster, the nitty gritties are underwhelming and fail to resonate.
Overall, Leave No Trace lands as a somewhat disappointing output from Granik. The performances are undoubtedly strong, working well together and showcasing actors clearly rising above the material they are given, Foster in particular shines once more. It’s the narrative framework of Granik’s alluring world that restrains what could clearly be a great film.
Leave No Trace (2018), directed by Debra Granik, screened as part of the 2018 Sundance London Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on June 29th, distributed by Sony Picture Releasing, certificate PG.