Movie Review: ‘LEAVE NO TRACE’ flourishes in its depiction of family, even if it feels misguided in other areas


James Cole Clay // Film Critic


Rated PG, 109 minutes
Director: Debra Grankik 
Starring: Thomasin McKenzieBen FosterJeffery RifflardMichael Draper and Peter Simpson

Minimalism is a tool best used for the big screen. When you’re on a 25-foot piece of canvas, you can see everything. Director Debra Granik’s first work in eight years (after the Oscar-nominated WINTER’S BONE), LEAVE NO TRACE, practices this technique with a mythic story about familial bonds and the meditative beauty of the wilderness. Granik, who gets a top shelf workout of newcomer Thomasin McKenzie and veteran Ben Foster, makes the film somehow feel meandering and doesn’t offer many poignant revelations along the way.

As the story goes, we meet Tom (McKenzie) and Will (Foster), a father-daughter duo who have sequestered themselves from society in a makeshift haven located inside a national park in Portland, Oregon. Tom, who is burgeoning adulthood, is starting to notice that her and her father’s age are coming closer together each and every day. She’s discovering who she is as a person while still fully trusting her troubled, yet always loving father. Will’s story is filled with a more brooding tone: His spouse has passed away and his time in the military is haunting his psyche with echoes of PTSD. Keeping his daughter close and protected from the world is the only way this man is able to find inner peace — it’s an environment he can completely control… Until they are stripped away from their utopia and forced into civilization. Will and Tom are given a place for fellowship, a place to live, and, most importantly (as society is concerned), a structure for this young woman to thrive.   

Foster doesn’t allow his character to slip into the typical gross machismo that comes when a story decides to kill a woman in order for the man to find his own redemption; we can attribute that to the tactful direction by Granik. He’s a sensitive actor who works so carefully with his directors to achieve vulnerable, albeit difficult characterizations. However, LEAVE NO TRACE inherently lacks the connective tissue to allow these profound ideas to come to the surface. In terms of using PTSD as a narrative device, it rarely, if ever, uncovers any new found truths about this affliction. 

Granik is a filmmaker that treats her setting with upmost reverence. In WINTER’S BONE, she filmed the Ozark mountains as a dystopian setting filled with violence, drugs and poverty, with a cold, yet awe-inspiring look at the vistas that surround these downtrodden folks. Granik never condescends the simple, yet satisfied folk of the Pacific North West; there’s room for the people who fill her frames to develop and love the land in which they occupy. Understanding of landscapes is her greatest strength as a filmmaker. She treats the material with a sensitivity as Will and Tom constantly play along with the kindness of strangers, even though there’s a longing for the feral forrest. 

Narratively, LEAVE NO TRACE falls flat, yet McKenzie’s performance is unlike anything that’s been shown this year. She has a caustic delivery with each line of dialogue, yet there’s a confusion that boils inside of her as she wrestles with the love of her father and her own self interest. The divide between parent and child is heart wrenching, but Grankik doesn’t allow the story to fully form due to the hands-off approach to directing. McKenzie is a magnetic talent who will appear in THOR: RAGNAROK director Taika Waititi’s film next year, JOJO RABBIT. Let’s just hope this is just a taste of what her talents have to offer.

Grade: B

LEAVE NO TRACE is now playing in select theaters.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.