Netflix UK film review: Leave No Trace
Ivan Radford | On 03, Mar 2019
Director: Debra Granik
Cast: Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Ben Foster
Watch Leave No Trace online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Every year, there are films that slip under the radar of most audiences and don’t get the attention they deserve. Leave No Trace is one of them. Directed by Debra Granik, who gave us the chilling and gripping Winter’s Bone, it’s a story of similarly small scale and equally big emotional heft.
Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, My Abandonment, it follows a young girl and her father, both living off the grid in America’s woodlands. But the land they’ve made their own is a public park in Oregon, and soon, Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are discovered and ousted from their quiet, rural life, and thrust into a system that they’ve shunned.
But what becomes apparent, as they are processed, categorised, sorted and relocated, is that Will is the one who did shunting for both of them, and a gap slowly starts to emerge between an anxious father unable to exist in normal civilisation and a daughter curious about the connections that can be formed in a whole new world. Granik masterfully captures both experiences simultaneously, contrasting the wide open wildlife with confines of offices and homes, and the remote silence with the excitement of new friends (and their pet rabbits).
It’s a slow, carefully told story, one that Granik begins with almost no words whatsoever: our introduction to Will and Tom is a montage of daily routines (chess, chopping wood, huddling in a tent) that immerses us in a family where words aren’t needed. It sets the mood for both the film and their relationship, which Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie bring to life with a remarkable realism. From their unspoken glances to their loyal behaviour, every inch of their bond rings true – especially as we see them begin to spend time away from each other. As much as they want to be left alone, it’s achingly visible that they also can’t bear to be apart, and the way their conversations increase in number, while simultaneously changing in tone, gives us an intimate window into the impact of society upon individuals.
While we witness the jarring bureaucracy of the social system, though, Granik and Anne Rosellini’s script is more nuanced than that: we also glimpse kindness and sympathy, from the man who gives Will a job on a farm chopping trees (an act that’s painful to him, after living in the forest) or the local kid who makes friends with Tom to the official helping will to complete a questionnaire on a computer. What might have been an intensely grim or tragic tale also carries a note of hope and optimism, underscored by the minimal, un-intrusive soundtrack by Dickon Hinchliffe. Delving into PTSD and the support that exists for mental health issues both in and on the outskirts of society, the result is a thoughtful, superbly performed, character-driven study of how we define home and identity, one that lingers after the credits have rolled.
Leave No Trace is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.