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Review: Leave No Trace – “One of this year’s most rewarding cinematic experiences”

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It’s been a long wait but writer/director Debra Granik’s new film Leave No Trace is well worth each of the 8 years it took her to come back after her breakthrough work on Winter’s Bone (2010). To be fair, the brilliant filmmaker has actually made documentary Stray Dog in 2014 but after the 4 Oscar nominations Winter’s Bone collected, including the first one ever for then up-and-comer Jennifer Lawrence, we were eagerly anticipating her narrative feature follow up.

Based on Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment” which was inspired by a true story, Leave No Trace is the incredible tale of a father-daughter relationship on the fringe of society. The amazing and often underrated Ben Foster (Hell Or High Water) plays Will, a PTSD-ridden war veteran who is raising his young teenage daughter Tom (exceptional newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in the woods of a vast natural reserve in Portland, Oregon. The pair are virtually homeless but they have made the most out of their lifestyle and the film’s opening sequence establishes how, in spite of the challenges of the case, Will and Tom are doing fine.

When a jogger accidentally spots Tom in the woods, the police smokes the roaming father-daughter duo out of their hiding place and social services take them into custody. Being homeless is not a crime but living in the park is illegal plus the system inevitably frowns upon Will’s life choice, especially when a minor is involved. Having passed all major checks, Will and Tom are relocated in a farm where they can still be together and live in a “safer” and “more appropriate” environment for a teen but soon Will becomes restless and drags Tom back into their wandering life.

However, the time spent at the farm has affected Tom, who has never experienced a more traditionally balanced lifestyle and has grown to like it. As father and daughter embark upon a new perilous journey – aside from facing the practical dangers of survival – their biggest challenge will be about Tom’s coming of age and the new direction of their relationship after realising they may no longer want the same things out of life.

The result is a deeply moving family drama, which explores the true meaning of home and family, the pitfalls of societal conventions and reflects on the human struggle to find peace and meaning. And it’s all told gracefully by the talented Granik who clearly is in her element when telling stories that ooze with realism and touch upon significant topics and social issues.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to read the novel prior to viewing the film at Sundance London or at least before approaching this review but the filmmaker apparently veered away from some darker tones explored in the source material and that’s fine. The beauty of adaptation is the freedom to take a story in new directions. What certainly emerges from Granik’s work is her unique ability to capture a specific world with authenticity. The way she observes these characters and the environment they gravitate in is astounding, whilst her sensibility at distilling the best out of an actor’s performance is the cherry on top.

The director has an obvious gift for inspiring and leading young emerging thespians with a lot of potential. She did it back in the day with Jennifer Lawrence and now she does it again with New Zealand native Thomasin McKenzie, who is simply heartbreaking in this role and finds the perfect scene partner in the brilliantly raw Foster. Their chemistry is palpable from the moment they appear on screen all the way to the emotional climax and if anything, when the screen cuts to black you feel like you want to see more of these people. Granik has crafted a poignant piece of cinema, framed by Michael McDonough’s gorgeous cinematography, gifting us one of this year’s most rewarding cinematic experiences. Don’t miss it!

Leave No Trace is in UK cinemas from June 29th.

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