Leave No Trace review — Off-the-grid drama delivers great performances

Directed by Debra Granik | Written by Granik, Anne Rosellini, from a novel by Peter Rock | 109 min

There’s a moment here that crystalizes what’s going on between the two lead characters in Granik’s story of a father and daughter who’ve been living rough and alone in the Pacific Northwest woods, but now find themselves in a situation many would find preferable—they’ve been provided a roof over their heads, and him a job.

“What if the kids at school think I’m strange because of the way we were living?” asks Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) of her father, Will (Ben Foster). “How important are their judgments?” he responds. “I guess I’ll find out,” she says.

Tom’s trying to embrace the changes that have been forced on them when they’re discovered living in a National Park by the authorities, while Will’s still struggling with how tightly to hold onto the way of life he’s raised his daughter in, and more than a little fear. Why Will chose this life, where he came from, what happened to Tom’s mother, and why he named his daughter Tom… isn’t discussed. Granik is apolitical on whether Will’s choices benefit or hinder Tom’s life. Maybe it’s not a question of good or bad, rather of how well prepared she actually is for the world—survival skills and learning from books versus the social skills she might learn from being part of a community larger than two. The heart of the thing is their relationship, and the fact she’s a teenager and old enough to start making decisions about her own wellbeing while he runs from something he can’t escape.

Leave No Trace feels grittier than, say, Captain Fantastic, though both films cover similar territory—the willing separation of a family from 21st Century American culture, and whether that’s sustainable over time. This picture is more clear-eyed and far less romantic about life in the woods, which, given Granik’s last feature was the astonishing Winter’s Bone, should be no surprise. This isn’t quite as Shakespearean as that 2010 film was—and I was left wanting a little more dramatic event in the narrative—but the authenticity in the storytelling and central performances are something to see.

Opens in Halifax Friday, July 13, 2018

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.