Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Leave No Trace (PG)

Directed by: Debra Granik
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie
June 2018

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

From Debra Granik, the writer/director of Winter’s Bone (2010), comes a father/daughter survival story set in the forests near Portland, Oregon, appropriately named Leave No Trace.  At first we think that Will (Ben Foster) and his pre-teen daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are either running away from something or that they’ve lost everything and found themselves homeless in the sticks instead of the streets.  But we quickly learn that they like living in the forest…it’s their home. We get an insider’s perspective of their daily routines; the many little things they must do in order to survive out in the wild.  They clearly have a love and healthy respect for nature. But nature abhors a vacuum, and one day a jogger spots Tom through a patch of foliage. The park rangers and police show up a short time later and haul Will and Tom back to civilization.  The process of readjusting to “normal” life—staying in a house, attending church and eating casseroles—proves to be a significant challenge for Will and Tom.  After taking some academic tests, it’s discovered that Tom, whose teachers are her father and a handful of books, is “quite a bit ahead of where” she needs to be (an obvious indictment against our dumbed down education system).  Tom makes the most of their situation, but Will is clearly struggling.  Tom tells her dad, “It might be easier on us if we adapt.”  But, after a few weeks it becomes obvious that Will can’t adjust to the vagaries of modern living.  It’s bitterly ironic that Will, who recently lived among the trees, now works a job where he cuts them down and packages them for shipment to California as Christmas trees. As Will stares longingly at the forest, we can almost hear the trees calling out for him to come home.  Fortunately, that isn’t how the story ends, as you’ll see when you watch the movie. And you must watch this movie; not only because Foster delivers a pitch-perfect, understated performance and McKenzie is a startling, wide-eyed revelation, but because Trace is a powerful human drama that asks some unsettling, poignant questions about the price of progress and what our modern conveniences have extracted from our souls. Trace subtly depicts how PTSD (which is never directly mentioned in the movie) can have a devastating effect on the sufferer and others in the family.  Ultimately, Trace is a heartbreaking tale of how life can gradually pull us in a different direction from the ones we love.  The extensive location filming gives Trace a strong sense of place: it’s a wholly immersive cinematic experience where you can smell the morning dew on the pine needles and feel the dampness in your bones as you join a rain-soaked Will and Tom on their quest to find shelter on a frigid night (a psychological stimulus that becomes a physical one when the theater’s AC kicks in).  But don’t worry, unlike the adverse conditions the movie subjects its characters to, Trace won’t leave you out in the cold. 

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars