Leave No Trace

(Granik, 2018)


Leave No Trace is a gorgeous bildungsroman about a girl named Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who finds herself caught between the expectations of modern society and her dad’s man-of-the-woods lifestyle. When her makeshift home in the woods is uprooted by state police, Tom gets a taste of life in a real house and begins to lose the close relationship she has with her troubled father. While there is so much to love in this film, there is no doubt that the most impressive thing about Leave No Trace is its actors. In fact, this film should be archived as definitive proof that Ben Foster is one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated actors in Hollywood right now. From humble beginnings as Eli on Freaks and Geeks, Ben Foster has blossomed into an indie darling, most recently gaining acclaim (and an Independent Spirit Award) for his role alongside Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges in 2016’s Hell or High Water. Leave No Trace finds Foster in his most intriguing role yet— that of a U.S. army veteran with PTSD. It is the second film this year to feature a raw depiction of PTSD (see You Were Never Really Here) and Foster does the part justice. Foster’s performance, like the rest of the film, is extremely understated, but his subtlety only further accentuates the palpable “realness” that permeates throughout the film.

But as good as Ben Foster is, he seems to know that he is not the star here. The heart and soul of this film is the magnetic Thomasin McKenzie. The eighteen year-old actress (who was sixteen at the time of filming) effortlessly delivers one of the best performances of the year so far. Though nuanced, McKenzie’s character is given moments of great power when she goes toe-to-toe with Foster. In those emotional scenes, where familial bonds crack under the pressure of their situation, it is hard to imagine that she was only sixteen years old. McKenzie’s quivering lip achieves more raw emotion than most actors do with their whole bodies, and her words echo in your ear long after they are spoken (a testament to Granik’s brilliant script as well). Though many are touting her as the “The New Jennifer Lawrence” (the connection seems to be good acting and Debra Granik), McKenzie deserves more than a comparison— because she is not the new J. Law, she is Thomasin McKenzie, and you will probably be hearing that name for a long time.

Leave No Trace is more than just great acting; it is great direction, cinematography and writing. It is also one of the best films of the year, an artful and passionate look at a broken family that only thrives by going against the grain. Foster and McKenzie’s natural chemistry leave you feeling real emotion, even after you acknowledge their status as actors on a screen. Though its soft nature may lead it to general obscurity, Leave No Trace has certainly left an imprint on me, an emotional footprint that I won’t need tracking to find. ★★★★½

David Merkle