Friday, September 28, 2018

Leave No Trace

Theme: United States of Indie
Country: United States
Director: Debra Granik
Screenplay: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini (Peter Rock)
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican
Production: Anne Harrison, Linda Reisman, Anne Rosellini / Harrison Productions, Reisman Productions, Still Rolling Productions
108 min
Language: English
Distribution: Selmer MediaPrint source: Selmer Media
Cinematography: Michael McDonough
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Editing: Jane Rizzo
Loc: Eagle Fern Park in Clackamas County
US © 2018 My Abandonment LLC.
Helsinki International Film Festival (HIFF)
DCP with Swedish subtitles by Martin Andersson viewed at Bio Rex, Helsinki 28 Sep 2018

Mark Kermode as quoted by HIFF: "A tale of a father and daughter living off the grid in the forests of the Pacific north-west of the US proves the perfect material for Winter’s Bone [HIFF 2010] director Debra Granik. Renowned for her empathetic portrayal of marginalised outsiders, Granik here conjures a low-key drama about cultural and generational divides that is alternately gripping and melancholic, but always shot through with the unmistakable ring of truth. The result is work of overwhelming, understated power that quite simply took my breath away."

"In the secretive midst of a vast public park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon […], reclusive veteran Will (Ben Foster, typically intense) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), live in camouflaged encampments, moving regularly to evade detection. Their existence is elemental; they make fire from the earth and gather water from the sky […]. But when their cover is blown, the pair are captured, interrogated, and forced to re-enter the modern world, with divisive results."

"McKenzie, the rising New Zealand star […] combines the astonishing technical skills of a young Jennifer Lawrence with the wide-eyed naturalism of David (”Dai”) Bradley in Kes. Watching Leave No Trace, we feel as though we are watching her grow up before our eyes; her pain, courage and compassion are tangible and real. It’s a pitch-perfect performance around which Granik builds her flawless, deeply affecting film." Mark Kermode, Observer, as quoted by HIFF

AA: Leave No Trace is Debra Granik's first fiction feature film after the unforgettable Winter's Bone (2010). It has the same approach of honest authenticity in its affectionate tale of outsiders. Winter's Bone of course was the amazing breakthrough vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence. Otherwise I find Leave No Trace an even more powerful movie.

The deeply felt sense of the forest is something that strikes a familiar chord in a Finnish viewer (and no doubt also in a Swedish, Norwegian, Russian, or Canadian viewer). For the protagonists of this tale the forest is the true home, and urban communities feel strange and distant. The same sense was caught by Akira Kurosawa in Dersu Uzala.

Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are very intelligent people, and there is a tragicomic feeling in the scenes in which they are put to psychological tests which are an insult to anyone's intelligence.

Suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder after service in the Iraq War Will has become a misfit. The northwestern forests seem to house many such outsiders. Will has taken good care of his daughter, but inevitably Tom will not stay with her father forever.

The title "Leave No Trace" has a double meaning. It is the true forest trekker's guideline in any circumstances. Here it also means that Will and Tom will have nothing to do with society.

Visually, the movie is magnificent in its account of the great outdoors. This scope format movie is best experienced in a large cinema such as Bio Rex.

Green is the dominant colour. It is the most difficult colour. (In fact "green" is a thousand colours). Especially for digital it is the most challenging colour.


Will, an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD, lives with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom, in a public park outside Portland, Oregon. They live in almost total isolation, only entering town for occasional food and supplies. Will makes their money by selling his VA-issued painkillers to other veterans.

After Tom is accidentally spotted in the woods by a jogger, officers arrest them and place them into social services. They are given food and a house on a tree farm in rural Oregon, on the condition that Will abides by the rules of the home owner and social services. Will begrudgingly begins to work on the settlement packaging pine trees, while Tom begins school and interacts with local kids her age in a 4H club. Will feels oppressed by others' presence and tells Tom they are returning to the woods. She follows reluctantly.

Will and Tom catch a ride north with a long-haul trucker, who lets them out, at Will's direction, on the edge of trackless woods. They bushwhack in a direction Will expects to lead to an unoccupied cabin, but cold and darkness force them to build a makeshift tent to survive the night. The next day, they find an abandoned cabin and move in.

Will leaves to find food but does not return for some time. Tom walks out to look for him, eventually finding him unconscious at the bottom of a hill, presumably from a slip and fall. She gets help from some locals passing by, who take them back to their mobile home community. One of them suggests taking Will to a hospital, but Tom, knowing that going to a hospital could mean going back into social services, refuses. A local woman calls a friend of hers, a former Army medic (and fellow PTSD sufferer), who gets Will on the road to recovery. He also lends Will his own therapy dog to ease his mental adjustment to society.

Will and Tom stay in the community for some time while Will’s injuries heal. Tom likes this new home, and hopes that she and her father can stay there permanently. Will, however, continues to feel overwhelmed by social interaction and insists that they leave again. Tom protests this, telling him "the same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me". When Will leaves anyway, Tom says that she can not go with him this time, and needs to try to live a normal life. They tearfully hug and part ways. 

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