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Reel Review: ‘Leave No Trace’

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By Anna Husted EBS Film Critic

“Leave No Trace” is not an easy film to process. It is a beautiful film with long shots of Eagle Fern Park in Portland, Oregon, and close-ups of trees, wildlife and the talented young actress Thomasin McKenzie. But it is a story of a father who does not know how to take care of his daughter anymore, and a daughter who must choose how to care for her dad.

We meet Tom (McKenzie) and her dad (Ben Foster) in their home in the woods where they cook breakfast, tend to their garden, and practice hiding drills in case they are ever found camping illegally in the park.

Tom’s dad, whose name is only mentioned once in the film, has post-traumatic stress disorder from an undisclosed conflict. He wakes with nightmares in their tent and covers his head anytime a helicopter flies over. He deals with his PTSD through backwoods survival. When a trail runner finds them and father and daughter are split up by social services; young Tom realizes there are more choices in the world than which mushroom is safe to eat.

Director Debra Granik paints this coming-of-age story with green and blue hues that express the growth of her young protagonist, a transformation that requires socialization with people her age and a community that understands her situation.

Years after her successful debut feature film, “Winter’s Bone,” Granik delivers another powerful feminine film in “Leave No Trace.” The simple girlishness of wanting a seahorse necklace found on the trail is akin to the kind gesture of the main character in “Winter’s Bone” teaching her siblings to shoot and cook squirrels. But the feminine touch is subliminal because it is masked by masculine modes of survival practiced by the girls in both films.

The supporting cast of “Leave No Trace” also reinforces the theme of the masculine energy overpowering the feminine energy. We see this in the well-meaning, but misunderstanding social worker (Dana Millican) and the trailer park mother figure (Dale Dickey). Both women project a tough, masculine exterior, but desire to express their emotions to Tom in her time of need. They never quite do beyond simple gestures of providing her with clean sheets and gifts of horse figurines.

“Leave No Trace” only skims the surface of the consequences of war and PTSD, which bothered me at first because it is such a catalyst in this film. But “Leave No Trace” is truly about a daughter coming to terms with how to live a healthier life even if that means living without her dad.

“Leave No Trace” says so much about the human condition of loss and struggle with little dialogue and a lot of heart. Be prepared to be moved and awakened by this poignant, thoughtful film.

“Leave No Trace” is now available on DVD through the Bozeman Public Library or for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema or hiking up a mountain. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s running, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.

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