It’s in the clicks, a soft double-click sound made by the tongue of a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s a secret code to tell her father she’s near and she loves him. Leave No Trace is rich with details like this, which deftly paint its central father-daughter relationship without a word. It’s clear in their comfort, the way she falls into sync with his humming of a half-remembered tune. In their efficiency in building a fire, scavenging for wild mushrooms, and casually shooing away wild dogs, you learn this isn’t just a camping trip. This shelter of tarps and tents in the midst of a lush park in Portland, Oregon, is their home, humble but happy. However, once the authorities discover them, this simple bliss will be shattered, forcing the two to come to a brutal decision.
From Winter’s Bone co-writer/director Debra Granik, Leave No Trace is a ruthlessly intimate family drama set on the fringe of contemporary society, trekking from campsite to cabin, train car to trailer. Ben Foster stars as Will, a traumatized veteran shattered by his time in the service. He chooses to live away from “them,” the society he can’t abide or understand. Adapted from the Peter Rock novel, the film offers no grand Oscar-baiting speeches about Will’s painful past or the hell of war. The script by Granik and Anne Rosellini instead grants quick clues like a visit to a Veterans Affairs hospital and his daughter Tom’s terse exchange with a social worker to lay the barest details. From there, Will’s past and present are all on Foster, who radiates trauma with tension, his lips a clenched frown, his eyes flashing with a barely contained panic. In the woods, he is comfortable and capable. But in their world, loud sounds hurl him into anxiety and social interactions feel a suffocating burden. With few lines but a ferocious presence, Foster is mesmerizing in the role, in his tense silence giving voice to the suffering soldiers, who Americans thank for their service without fully confronting their sacrifice. Yet this is not his movie. Though Foster will win critical praise and potential awards acclaim, Leave No Trace will be remembered as the stunning breakthrough for New Zealand ingénue Thomasin McKenzie.
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