Leave No Trace (US 2018)

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom and Ben Foster as her father, Will consider taking the train

The team of Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini have created another marvellous film that stands alongside Zama and Sweet Country as a highlight of 2018 viewing. Rosellini is co-writer and producer and Granik is co-writer and director. The pair have made four films together. They all feature characters struggling to survive on the edges of American society in ‘marginal’ communities but also displaying strength of purpose and real humanity. Most reviewers have singled out the success of the pair’s Winter’s Bone (US 2010) as a good starting point for discussing the new film and there are certainly some important links, but it is unfortunate that UK distributors were seemingly unwilling to release Stray Dog (US 2014). That documentary film features a Vietnam veteran who forty years later has found peace and purpose as a biker who runs a trailer park in rural Missouri and cares for his extended family and his community of similarly-minded people. Several elements from this film are worked into Leave No Trace.

Tom and Will under their tarpaulin canopy in the Portland urban park and enjoying a father-daughter whittling exercise

The new film is inspired by the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock and the film credits list three other books used by the writers and actors in their search for some kind of authenticity in the representation of narrative events. Leave No Trace is one of those films in which the central characters are not given a back story, or at least it is not spelt out for us and we must work with only scraps of information. On the other hand, the story does have connections to both mainstream and independent film genres. It opens in a temperate rain forest where a father and his teenage daughter appear to have been living for some time as they are well-equipped and organised with set routines and even a small vegetable plot. Our first surprise is that the forest is not in a remote area, but actually close to a major road bridge and the urban mass of Portland. We follow the couple into town where they visit a military veteran’s event and a supermarket. We are in Oregon and I was reminded of the first Rambo film (First Blood US 1982) in which the hero is eventually chased through the forests of the North West and the very different Wendy and Lucy (US 2008) set, like some of her other films, by Kelly Reichardt in small town Oregon. Some reviewers have also mentioned Captain Fantastic (US 2016) which I haven’t seen. I think there might also be elements shared with Into the Wild (US 2007) and some European films such as Vie Sauvage (France-Belgium 2014)

Will (Ben Foster) is indeed a veteran, though we never find out where or when he fought. Only when he sells some prescription medication to men in a camp by the park do we realise that he might have some form of PTSD. Ben Foster is very good as Will and it was only after the screening that I realised that he was one of the stars in the excellent Hell or High Water (US 2016). He was also the lead in The Messenger (US 2009) in which he is a soldier close to the end of his tour of duty who is sent to deliver the terrible news of the death of loved ones to soldiers’ families. I see that I praised him for both roles so the fact that I didn’t recognise him says a lot about his ability to inhabit his roles. Will’s daughter is ‘Tom’ (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young New Zealander with a big future). Her mother (and presumably Will’s wife/partner) is never mentioned. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but the shape of the story requires the couple to be first ‘discovered’ by the authorities and then placed in a ‘re-socialisation’ programme from which Will forces another escape. But this isn’t an action film. Its central focus is the father-daughter relationship and their love for each other. The problem is that while Will needs an escape/an alternative/a diversion from the world in his head, Tom is still open to anything that might happen. I found the film’s ending satisfying in how it tried to deal with this, especially when Dale Dickey appeared (she features in both Winter’s Bone and Hell or High Water). My hope and expectation is that audiences will be deeply moved by the central relationship.

Tom with Dale Dickey

Leave No Trace is a complex and many-layered narrative. The title also refers to the exhortation heard by anyone who ventures into a national park or area of outstanding beauty. I remember as a teenager in the 1960s been told not to leave orange peel on Lake District fells. Will is very disciplined in how he works with the environment and he has taught Tom well. The irony is that the forest in which we first see Will and Tom is so close to urban America so they exist in a kind of no man’s land – I did wonder where the eggs came from until I saw father and daughter stroll into town. As one review I read suggested, it is also surprising that the local welfare agencies assume the worst when they pick up Will and Tom – and Will is forced to answer questions asked by a computer in scenes reminiscent of I, Daniel Blake. The welfare agencies do seem polite and professional but I would find their controlling attitudes unbearable and there is a scene on a bus which quite shocked me. The other side of the authorities is represented visually when bulldozers arrive to knock down the shanty town/tent city occupied by rough sleepers close to the city. I remember similar scenes from films set in apartheid era South Africa and from recent films like Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013).

Tom makes a friend of Isaiah and his rabbit

The US is a very big country with plenty of land but it now all seems to be owned by the government and major landowners alongside the those who own their own homes. It’s seemingly difficult to find a place to pitch your tent and live away from people if you are poor. If you are rich you can build your own estate. Politically, ‘living in the woods’ now seems like a right-wing survivalist activity that stirs up all those American ideas about freedom and the right to bear arms. That doesn’t fit with Will and Tom but it seems like a discourse which Granik and Rosellini attempt to counteract in Stray Dog and again in Leave No Trace. There is another older idea about living in the woods which goes back to Henry David Thoreau and Walden or Life in the Woods (1854) and stresses the simplicity and direct contact with nature. Leave No Trace comments obliquely on this by showing the ‘home-schooled’ Tom reading her encyclopedia in her home-made shelter and crushing egg-shells (anti-slug protection?) to place around her tiny plot of brassicas (?). The sense of the natural world is carried by both the cinematography of Scottish DoP Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone and Sunset Song (UK 2015)) and the sound design (a single ‘sound designer’ is not credited). In the first few minutes I recognised that sound of the rain filtering down through the tree branches in the forest. The music is under the control of composer Dickon Hinchliffe, another Brit and founder member of Tindersticks, who was responsible for the music in Winter’s Bone and as in that film, some of it here is diegetic and performed on ‘set’.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie spent time in a New Zealand forest preparing for her role and it did occur to me that Leave No Trace has many of the same elements found in Hunt For the Wilderpeople (NZ 2016). The New Zealand film was more light-hearted and occasionally hilarious, but like Leave No Trace it also suggested that living wild could be educational/restorative and that not everyone you meet ‘off grid’ is out to harm you. There have been predictable claims that Thomasina Harcourt Brace could emulate Jennifer Lawrence’s success after Winter’s Bone. Her performance in Leave No Trace is as assured as Lawrence’s in Winter’s Bone. I don’t know if she has the same drive and charisma in other situations but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out. Leave No Trace should win prizes. The only other recent American film I’ve seen with the same quality is The Rider (still not on release in the UK).

Leave No Trace is a film to hunt down and watch on a big screen. You won’t be disappointed.


  1. Geoff Lealand

    Thanks for this review. Looking forward to this film (I get the cross-references to Captain Fantastic, even though the ending of this particular film was rather bleak).
    Thomasin comes from a significant cinema/theatre lineage, with her mother and father and grandmother contributing a great deal to NZ cultural life.
    Incidentally, we refer to indigenous flora as ‘the bush’; the only forests we have are vast tracts of imported species such as pinus radiata, grown for cutting and export.


    • Roy Stafford

      Thanks Geoff. I did read about Thomasin and her family, possibly in the same review that referred to a New Zealand ‘forest’. I enjoyed visiting the Botanical Gardens in Dunedin last year, but I’m not sure I realised how much flora might have been imported over the last two hundred years.


  2. keith1942

    A fine film and I think Roy’s references are interesting.
    I note one still shows the rabbit and animals have an important function in the film, including four dogs.


  3. Ruth Baumberg

    It is interesting to compare this with the American Photographer Alec Soth’s book called Broken Manual. Here is a link to a review of this in the British Journal of Photography. His pictures have been exhibited in the UK – he is a leading documentary photographer :- and his photos have a similar vibe but are documentary photos of people living off-piste.


    • Roy Stafford

      Have you seen Leave No Trace? I agree that the description of the two projects sounds similar but the photographs in the review you cite don’t visually correspond to the images in the film nor do the signifiers or the discussion in the review share the same perspective as that of Granik and Rosellini as far as I can tell. In fact they seem to suggest the opposite of the view of the film which is warm and humanist and tries to avoid typing its characters. Will and Tom don’t really ‘challenge the viewer’ and their context doesn’t fit that descrtibed in the review as “economic stagnation, religious fervour and down-at-heel eccentricity”. There is a church service in the film that I found rather painful but it seemed good-natured and pretty harmless.


  4. Ruth Baumberg

    The photographs in the review were not those of Broken Manual but another project of Alec Soth’s. They are indeed empathetic and full of interest and an attempt at entering their world though they are indeed eccentric.Quite fascinating in fact and very humanist.His photos of Beside the Mississippi are similarly displaying alternative views of life.


  5. John Hall

    Having had the privilege of seeing two films about marginalised people living on the fringes of society recently, that is both ‘Mobile Homes’ and ‘Leave No Trace’, I find that one helps to put the other into perspective. Although I greatly enjoyed ‘Leave No Trace’ as a film, something was bothering me about it. That was the seemingly complete absence of malice encountered everywhere by Tom and her dad whose situation might easily lead to their being taken advantage of. Everywhere you looked, whether it be the authorities, well-meaning local farmers who wanted to help out, or the community of outsiders in the woods who helped them with accommodation and food, there was only the best of intentions displayed. In fact, the only malice that I could detect was where her admittedly disturbed father kept moving the girl on when her best interests would be to stay put.
    The marginalised characters in ‘Mobile Homes’, on the other hand, while being themselves mainly selfish and larcenous, were also offered chances of redemption in new communities that would accept them despite their faults, and in this case I felt that the minor characters encountered were more well-rounded by being a little more selfish themselves. There was the whacko car chase that threw a little unreality into ‘Mobile Homes’ in the latter stages, but on balance this was the better film for me, and probably also had the better performance from Imogen Poots.


    • Roy Stafford

      I meant to comment some time ago, not to argue with your preference, but just to point out that Leave No Trace has been the sleeper hit of the year in the sense that it ran for several weeks in a handful of key cinemas, including HOME in Manchester (see the Charles Gant column in the October issue of Sight and Sound). So it’s lack of malice shown to the father and daughter hasn’t hampered its appeal for some audiences.


      • John Hall

        Perhaps this difference in audience is a quirk of the distribution afforded to each of these films. I had to go all the way to Hull to see ‘Mobile Homes’ in their small scale film festival. ‘Leave No Trace’ was not at all difficult to get to see, and it had additional prompting in that Debra Granik had introduced us to Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Winter’s Bone’ and now here she was back with another young prodigy. I think it was on the whole harder to like ‘Mobile Homes’, but it put me in mind of ‘Scarecrow’ which was also a bit overlooked in its day.


      • Roy Stafford

        John, you and I both saw Mobile Homes in a cinema during a film festival. As far as I can see, the film has never been released in UK cinemas. It became available on VOD on 20 August and is scheduled for a ‘home entertainment’ release from Thunderbird Releasing (though so far the BBFC only lists a certification for VOD). I agree therefore that Mobile Homes has been much more difficult to see. I agree also that Leave No Trace did get some good reviews and some promotion. However, Gant tells us that putting it into multiplexes (100 screens in all, so many must have been multiplex screens) achieved very little. It was staying in the key cinemas that made it a minor hit (and then getting it into small independents/art centres/community cinemas etc.).


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