Film Festival Movie Review

Film Review: LEAVE NO TRACE: Isolation and Survival of Choice [CCFF 2018]

Leave No Trace Review

Leave No Trace (2018Film Review from the 6th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, a movie directed by Debra Granik, starring Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, and Dana Millican.

Being alone wilderness is both freeing and restricting. Everything one has with regards to solitary living, one also has to contend with the elements and the constant need to find resources. We first meet a father, Will, and his thirteen year-old daughter, Tom, living in a state park in Portland, Oregon, in what appears to be the ideal existence. Pay no property taxes, don’t have to deal with commuting, and have no jobs. But this lifestyle does have drawbacks; namely, you have to keep moving. And move they do. Once they are discovered to be living there by the park rangers, they are forced to leave. From here, it is a standard survival story, but one that is of choice and not of circumstance.

And herein lies my biggest issue with the film. Sure, the father and daughter have a plight in that they need to survive by finding food, shelter, etc.  But this is a lifestyle that the father willingly chooses, and forces his daughter to go along with. And that choice has consequences. The plot moves at a snail’s pace, making a 1 hour and 48 minute picture feel like a 3 hour epic, but without the story to justify it. There is very little character development, aside from the pathos felt for the daughter as her father forces her to move from place to place without developing any social connections. But because we only have two characters to watch, that becomes a real problem for keeping interest as the film progresses.

One section of the film I did enjoy is when they try and assimilate into a neighborhood with homes, and get jobs. Seeing Ben Foster’s character try and fail at working with other people was interesting. And watching Tom make friends and care for animals on a farm was heart-warming.

The performances by the two leads are very well-acted, particularly from the young Thomasin McKenzie. Props goes to the director Debra Granik (who helmed Winter’s Bone eight years ago) for casting her and giving her a chance in a feature film. You can tell that she has an eye for young female talent, after this casting and directing Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout role in Winter’s Bone. Ben Foster gives a very subdued, melancholic performance as a veteran with what we assume is some kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (it is never clarified in the film what he is afflicted with, again robbing the audience of something to latch onto).

Aside from the performances, the cinematography was well-done. There are some impressive aerial shots of Portland, and the wilderness is vividly captured. But I cannot get by the structural issues with the plot. If the film had done a better job of detailing exactly why Will was choosing to live this lifestyle, it would have gone a long way. If you are in the mood for a slow survival story with one standout performance, you may get something out of this movie. That’s as close to a recommendation as I can give.

Rating: 5/10

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About the author

Kyle Steininger

Born and raised in Chicago, Kyle has loved movies ever since his father took him to the theater to watch Home Alone. Since then, he has developed a passion for films and everything about them from watching endless DVD extras, interviews with cast/crew, and attending screenings of older films when available. Some of his favorite directors include Kubrick, Fellini, Scorsese, Tarantino, Leone, and Nolan.

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