Leave No Trace ★★★★


Writer-director Debra Granik’s incisive and affecting new drama, 'Leave No Trace', begins within the hushed, verdant cathedral of Portland, Ore.’s Forest Park, one of the largest urban forest reserves in America. Among the towering, second-growth conifers and damp ferns, a family of two ekes out a low-impact existence, subsisting (to the greatest extent possible) on the fruits of their environment. Father Will (Ben Foster) shows his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) how to feather a twig with a pocketknife – improving its utility as a fire starter – and how to slow-cook wild mushrooms in a crude solar stove made of aluminum foil. These are not weekend diversions for Will and Tom: They are living within the park illegally, as off-the-grid as a pair of people can be while still residing in the city limits of a major municipality. Such is Will’s resolve to remain undiscovered that he instructs Tom in how to cover her footprints as they traverse the thickets, and stages mock hide-and-seek drills where they practice concealing themselves from outsiders.

The reason that father and daughter have adopted this “voluntarily unhoused” lifestyle is never completely elaborated on. However, that ambiguity never scans as coyness on the part of Granik’s powerfully reserved screenplay, which was co-written with her frequent collaborator Anne Rosellini and adapted from a 2010 novel by Peter Rock. Will is a Marine veteran who plainly suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and stray details late in the film indicate that his unit has suffered from an unusually high rate of suicide. Otherwise, Granik and Rosellini present Will’s mental health issues as amorphous and yet utterly overwhelming. He has no desire to re-enter society, and has organized his existence around the twin pillars – manias, one might say – of isolation from others and protectiveness towards his daughter...

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