One of the great things about film is it can focus on one area of life that would otherwise go unnoticed or overlooked. At its best it can be a mirror to society, in all its many facets, across the spectrum of life.
I say this to set the scene somewhat for the topic of today’s review, 2018’s Leave No Trace.
There are usually a fair few films in any given year that I miss, not because I don’t want to see them, but simply because nowhere near me is showing them; and such was the case with this film, which earned a fair amount of acclaim around its release, and across the festival circuit, but failed to really take a hold at the box office.
This happens frequently with films such as this, releases whose budget was used mainly on making a good product rather than on marketing, but it does mean that several great films fall through the cracks of public consciousness, this film included.
Leave No Trace is the story of a father and daughter, who choose to live life away from society, they set up camp in a national park, but their circumstances are threatened when someone stumbles across them.
Without wishing to give too much of the film away, that’s about the most I can tell anyone going in to set the scene. It documents their life and way of living in a very hands-off manner, it’s not leading the audience to judge that choice as right or wrong, it’s simply showing us how they live, and this might be one of the best choices the film makes, not taking a moral stance either way allows the characters and narrative the breathing room they need to truly connect with its audience.
It is a story of characters, and the lives they lead. We’re given very little to go on initially, but both of our lead characters gain depth as the film goes on, it’s not afraid to let the audience come to its own conclusions on their character traits and goals, it doesn’t outright spell it out for you, it trusts the audience to recognise what makes each of them tick, and why they’re in that situation. It’s a brave move, especially in a world where attention spans seem to be shortening, to trust that your film is suitably engrossing for the audience to fully invest.
Helping this cause is some genuinely beautiful cinematography and production design, all of which serves to show us the wider world in which these two characters exist. The vast forests and woods the two try and find camp in are dense and threatening in wide shots, yet made to feel homely by the characters actions, using the materials that naturally surround them to turn a wild and hostile environment into a hospitable camp; all the while the camera work is making their less-than-ideal surroundings look like a lush paradise.
The films script is light on exposition, and dialogue in general, lending the film a realistic edge, it builds a feeling of tension surrounding the characters, as their experiences start to change them as people, and change their overall life goals. A lot of things are suggested rather than outright stated, the characters body language conveying their emotions more than their words to; again, it’s a bold decision, but in the context of the film, it’s the right one. It allows the sounds of the world around them build a soundscape of their lives, putting us in their shoes by making their environment as immersive as possible.
The two main characters are what really sold the whole thing for me, the relationship and bond they shared, and how that changed over the course of the films events, really pushed the film into being something special. There’s a fiercely loyal bond that is evidently shared, but there’s a growing difference that becomes apparent also as the film goes on, as the daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), starts to search for her own way, and her own independent spirit begins to grow.
McKenzie is the real star of this film, Ben Foster, who plays her father is similarly engaging, but it’s his younger co-star who really steals the show.
The invisible bond that links the characters is tested, and this is shown fantastically by the young actress, who you may recognise from her similarly strong showing in Jojo Rabbit, the material she is given is light on exposition as I mentioned, and it takes an actor of some renown to sell their characters on mainly body language alone, but she does, and when she speaks, it feels like it’s important that we listen, her characters voice is so strong and defiant that she starts to outshine her father, it’s emotional to watch their relationship tested, even if the changes in her go unsaid, they’re certainly not unnoticed.
It’s also important to note that the film doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, it would have been easy for such a premise to drag its feet a little to extend its runtime, but I never get that feeling here, the atmosphere is slowly built, the characters undergo a journey, and coherent arcs, and it leaves us on a suitably touching finale that shows the strength of the bond the two characters share; a truly wonderful script and premise is pulled off in style by filmmakers and actors working to make this film feel special, and more importantly, feel human. A tremendous film, with tremendous heart.