****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. An understated but well acted and directed film that speaks quietly but says volumes.
Leave No Trace, written and directed by Debra Granik (based on the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock), is the story of a father with PTSD and his teenage daughter who live off of the grid in the woods of Oregon. The film stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as the father Will and the daughter Tom.
Leave No Trace is not a spectacular film riddled with dazzling camera work or explosive dramatic gems, instead it is a deliciously understated and subtle movie exquisitely acted and masterfully directed.
Director Granik's last film was 2010's Winter's Bone which was Jennifer Lawrence's coming out party as a major talent and movie star. Lawrence was nineteen when she shot Winter's Bone, and her performance was so transcendent it garnered her an Oscar nomination and catapulted her to the A-list.
Leave No Trace's teen star is Thomasin McKenzie, and while she won't be on the express train to the A-list just yet, she certainly proves she will have a very bright future with her genuine work in the movie. McKenzie is a much more reserved actress than Jennifer Lawrence (and at 17, younger than Lawrence when she worked with Granik), but she shares the same vibrant inner life and grounded humanity that JLaw possesses.
What is so endearing about McKenzie's work in Leave No Trace is that, like a fawn taking its first steps, she carries the awkwardness of a teen girl with both a compelling mix of insecurity and bravado that is a joy to behold. When a scene arises where a typical actress would be trying to cry, McKenzie takes the wise and inspired choice to try and NOT cry. Watching her contain her emotions and only allow them to sneak through in the most understated of ways, like a quivering chin, made my acting coach heart burst with joy.
Teaming McKenzie with Ben Foster, one of my favorite actors and also one of the most underappreciated actors working today, makes for a dynamic pairing. Foster is blessed with both a gravitas and air of combustibility that makes him a magnetic and uneasy screen presence. Foster is, like McKenzie, understated in his performance in Leave No Trace, but the less he does the more mesmerizing he becomes in the role. Foster's layered and subdued work, sans his usual fireworks, is a testament to his skill and mastery of craft.
Speaking of mastery of craft, director Debra Granik takes the same subtle route as her actors. Leave No Trace is a straight forward film, and Granik shows her craftsmanship with her impeccable pacing, letting the narrative take its sweet time. Never in a rush, never showy, never over the top or even nearing it, Granik's proficient direction is proof that being able to tell a story without dramatic pyrotechnics and camera acrobatics is a dying art form.
Granik's Winter's Bone was a similarly directed film and proves that Ms. Granik is a throwback type of director from a fading cinematic era, the 1970's, when story and characters were the most important part of the film making process. I hope Granik becomes more prolific as a director in the coming years as her style and approach to the art form are a breath of fresh air in a sewer of over-the-top, look-at-me conformity.
While Granik's film is deeply poignant for many reasons, as a coming of age story, as a story of a wounded parent, I found it most poignant of all as an unwitting epitaph for the American male. Our society and culture has been emasculated and is feminized beyond recognition. All we are left with is a distorted masculinity (think of Trump or hip-hop culture) that no longer nourishes the society that contains it, but rather is a cancer that is toxic to all that come into contact with it. Real men...defined as self-sufficient, independent, individualistic, rugged, rough, straight-forward and trustworthy, are reduced to being either outlaws (echoes of writer/director Taylor Sheridan) or phantoms left to wander the wilderness but never be seen...like the mythical Sasquatch. As father to a young son, this is the reality that disturbs me to my core. In modern day America men like me and the man I am raising my son to be, are dinosaurs post-comet, a dying breed playing out the string while waiting for our extinction to become official.
As evidenced by the work of Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell of High Water, Sicario), women cannot survive in the world of men, but as Granik shows in Leave No Trace, men cannot survive in the world of women either. Containing the unruly beast of man is no easy task, as evidenced by Tom, who enjoys being able to control her toy horses and who learns to lose her fear of bees and enjoy handling them even though they could kill her (but would die in the process), but she realizes that man (her father) is a hell of a lot more difficult and dangerous to control than honey bees.
The film also highlights the broken promise of America, especially to men. Leave No Trace peels back the band-aid that covers the bullet wound of America's forgotten. The dark underbelly of America, populated by men sold a bill of goods and exploited for their misplaced sense of duty and patriotism, is a striking indictment of the vacuousness of American culture and political rhetoric.
As the film shows us, America is dying because the American male is dying and with him the American dream. An entire generation of American men are being corporatized and neutered, thus left without any sense purpose or meaning in their lives. This America of eunuchs is a nation that simply will not survive for very long as it will collapse under its own pretensions.
In conclusion, I really loved Leave No Trace. I found the acting and directing to be top notch and the storytelling and sub-text to be truly fascinating and insightful. I recommend you go see Leave No Trace in the theatre, not because it is the type of film that demands the big screen, but rather to send a message to Hollywood that smart, well-crafted, understated and character-driven stories can garner an audience and make them some money.
Whether you are a man or woman, I believe that Leave No Trace will move you, as it reveals that the painful wound currently afflicting America is ultimately fatal...and that there is no turning back and walking away. Go see it now.