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MOVIES: Leave No Trace - Review

After debuting to near-universal acclaim at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, director Debra Granik's Leave No Trace opens in limited release this weekend. It's her first feature since the stellar Winter's Bone, released in 2010, and shares a few similarities, including a small cast and an obvious affection for the great outdoors, but instead of characters traipsing through the rugged terrain of the Ozarks, this film is set in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in a sprawling nature preserve, in a shelter they've constructed on their own. They collect rainwater for drinking, hand-craft whatever tools they need, and frequently conduct drills designed to help them elude any would-be authorities who might stumble upon their little homestead. They venture into town periodically to pick up Will's medication from the VA, which he hawks to a local homeless camp, using the meager earnings to buy items that cannot be found in the forest.

When Tom is spotted by a hiker, it's not long before she and Will are discovered and whisked away for evaluation. A kindly social worker (Dana Millican) is surprised to learn that Tom is able to read at an advanced level, and that she seems remarkably healthy for living off the grid for so long, but it quickly becomes clear that their old way of life is over. With a job for Will and a roof over their head, Tom is excited by the prospect of meeting new people and enjoying the trappings of civilization, but she greatly underestimates her father's restlessness.

Leave No Trace is driven more by its characters than its narrative - indeed, the storytelling is often loose and ambiguous. It's clear that Will is suffering from an extreme form of PTSD, although the film never explicitly reveals this, and his reasons for shunning modern society are likewise never explored. Through context clues and snippets of dialogue, we can infer that Will was a combat veteran, and that his wife passed away some years earlier, but here again the details remain shrouded.

It's a relief, then, than a film which relies so much on the strength of its characters has a pair of truly superb performances to build itself around. This isn't the first time we've seen Foster portray someone with deep-seated troubles, but unlike the more diabolical and disturbing characters he's embodied over the years, there's a charismatic and sympathetic quality about Will. His approach to child-rearing is anything but conventional, yet his devotion to Tom is admirable in its steadfastness.

As a relative newcomer to features, McKenzie is even more impressive. Leave No Trace tasks the young actress with shouldering much of its emotional weight, and she's certainly up to the challenge. Much like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, this could prove to be the kind of breakout role that puts McKenzie on the map and opens a number of doors for future opportunities.

Quiet and somber, with long stretches of little to no dialogue, Leave No Trace isn't likely to appeal to everyone, especially with its purposefully vague approach to storytelling and deliberate obfuscation of details. But what it lacks in this area, it more than makes up for with its ability to evoke an emotional response to its characters and their plight.

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