MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Debra Granik. Starring Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie.
Leave No Trace begins in an interesting fashion, showing us a father and daughter living from day-to-day as residents in a national park outside of Portland, Oregon. Will (Foster) and his thirteen-year-old daughter Tom (McKenzie) are at peace in the natural world, picking mushrooms to eat, gathering collected rainwater from tarps to drink, sleeping in sleeping bags under a canopy and reading paperback books for entertainment. They hike occasionally into town to shop (and perhaps – although this is just a guess – going to the YMCA to shower).
The film is comfortable placing the audience into their world without a lot of backstory. We soon learn that Will has served in the armed forces since another stop in their Portland forays is the local Veterans Hospital, where Will picks up his medication for PTSD; he will sell this to a network of friends who will then resell the pills on the streets. While Tom assumes that her mother has died, she has no real memories of her early life apart from the stories her father tells, so the marriage may have ended in divorce.
Will and Tom love each other and are happy together, but they need to be on guard; they are breaking the law by living in a national park. Will trains Tom in how to break camp and then disappear into the wilderness, hopefully without leaving a clear pathway behind her. This deception can only last so long; eventually they are spotted by a jogger and arrested, with Tom sent to a juvenile home for girls and Will is jailed and given psychological tests. The other girls ask Tom about what it’s like to be homeless, but Tom says that she and her father are not homeless, but simply living the life that they choose.
Eventually Will and Tom will have an opportunity to live a more “normal” life, with a house to live in, schooling for Tom (I had some trouble believing that Tom’s homeschooling in the great outdoors would keep her on track with her grade level) and a job for Will at a Christmas tree farm. But will this new way of life work out for them?
Leave No Trace, like Granik’s earlier film, 2010’s Winter’s Bone, is filmed in a naturalist semi-documentary fashion, with a large cast of mostly unknown (and some amateur) actors. The film is slow-paced and introspective rather than plot driven, with about an hour’s worth of story stretched out to 108 minutes.
Still, I found its slight story emotionally satisfying, with great performances by Ben Foster (always good, and underrated) and first-timer Thomasin McKenzie, who I predict will be nominated for quite a few acting awards.
What I appreciated most about Leave No Trace was its community of people who were there to care about and care for Will and Tom.
There’s not a cynical, mean-spirited person in this film, including the arresting officers and agency bureaucrats. While there are no quick fixes or easy answers in this film, the world would be a better place if all of us could practice the compassion that is the beating heart of this movie.
Four halos: A moving story about finding your way in the world.
One pitchfork: Reselling of prescription drugs.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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