[Screen It]

"LEAVE NO TRACE"
(2018) (Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: After being removed from their makeshift campsite home in the woods outside of Portland, a military veteran and his teenage daughter try to cope with the unexpected upheaval in their lives.
PLOT:
War veteran Will (BEN FOSTER) and his teenage daughter Tom (THOMASIN McKENZIE) have been living in a makeshift campsite home in the woods outside of Portland for some time. They're completely at ease with their off-the-grid lifestyle and Will, who suffers from PTSD, earns enough money selling prescription drugs -- which he gets from the local VA hospital -- to other "homeless" vets living nearby so that he and Tom are never lacking food or basic supplies. But they're always nervous about any strangers who might stumble across them.

That fear comes to light when police find and arrest them for illegally living in the woods. From that point on, as they must contend with brief confinement, relocation in a rental home, and then Will's quest to return to the woods to live, the father-daughter duo find their relationship beginning to show signs of strain as she begins to long for more contact with civilization, something he can't imagine for himself.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
As a professional movie reviewer, the response I always get when someone hears that's my occupation is something along the lines of "That's so cool...how do I get a job like that?" For some, they seem to think I watch movies all day and get paid for that -- without doing anything else. But, of course, not only do I write an artistic review like everyone else, but I also write up full content details, all of which means a typical review for me take around ten hours to complete.

Accordingly, I sometimes loathe reviewing certain movies nowadays as that nearly always means taking non-stop notes regarding a barrage of potentially objectionable content and thus barely being able to watch the offering like everyone else. And thus I often long for the old days where a reviewer in my shoes - should they have noted content -- could sit back and watch a movie without furiously writing from start to finish. Yes, I realize those days are probably the result of a bygone era that's unlikely to ever return, but it's nice and refreshing when a new film happens across my path and I only take a few pages of notes at most.

Upon exiting our press screening for the drama "Leave No Trace" it certainly seemed like I found such a film as I only took two pages of notes, mostly related to plot elements. Yet, I ended up, oddly enough, sort of wishing for more content to note since not much really happens in the nearly two-hour long movie. It's about a military veteran and his teenage daughter who are found living in the woods outside of Portland who are removed from there and then forced into living like "regular" people and eventually become nomadic due to the PTSD-suffering man being unable to remain settled anywhere for too long.

Yes, a typical Hollywood film could have crammed all sorts of content into that premise, ranging from the father having the daughter taken away from him and then needing the help of an outside lawyer to regain custody, them witnessing some sort of crime and being torn about reporting it due to their desire to live off the grid and away from others, or any other number of plot developments to make the proceedings "sexier" for potential viewers.

Well, writer/director Debra Granik and co-scribe Anne Rosellini have instead opted to go the minimalist route in their adaptation of Peter Rock's book "My Abandonment." That 2009 work was inspired by stories that appeared in The Oregonian about a girl and her dad who spent four years living in a park.

As a disclaimer, and generally speaking, I like films that don't feel the need to spell everything out and instead leave some things unanswered and open to interpretation. That said, while I was okay with that in certain regards to the story elements found here, the lack of answers or information in general, coupled with the barebones plot leaves all sorts of potential on the board. That results in an offering that many a critic will likely gush over while many a regular moviegoer will end up scratching their heads wondering what all of the glowing critical fuss was about.

The film certainly begins with no explanation of why Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), aren't just camping in the woods, but instead are apparently living there, or for how long they have been doing so. I wasn't sure what to expect, such as whether they were in some sort of post-apocalyptic world and were surviving off the land and what leftover supplies they could find, or perhaps were on the lam from the authorities or maybe someone who wanted to do them ill will.

I was fine with that and when the cops finally found and arrested them for illegally living there. And while father and daughter clearly weren't anywhere near feral, I expected resentment, rejection and other such negative reactions to being incarcerated and then forced to live in a rental home and behave like "regular" people.

That certainly offers the potential for conflict and related drama, not only due to being uprooted from their way of life, but the slow and inexorable march toward a fissure between the teen, who eventually realizes civilization and friends aren't necessarily a bad thing, and the dad who can't settle down anywhere humans are around (and no, he's not an alien, android or something akin -- just a mentally traumatized man).

Without any revelations or answered questions, however, things start to bog down. And that's despite strong performances by the leads (especially McKenzie who's something of a find and makes one think of Granik similarly putting a young Jennifer Lawrence into the spotlight in "Winter's Bone") and a certain mesmerizing quality to the way the filmmaker presents the story and her characters. I see lots of films every year and most evaporate from my memory not long after seeing them, but there's something about this one and the individual moments -- even when not much is actually happening -- that's stuck with me.

So, I'm sort of torn as I appreciated the above along with grey quality surrounding most everything about the offering, yet at the same time wanted just a few tidbits more here and there to help flesh everything out. Perhaps a second viewing will help with my assessment.

At least with doing so, I wouldn't have to worry about catching some content I missed the first time around as I'll already know not much happens, or gets answered. As it stands, I admire "Leave No Trace" for its minimalist approach, lead performances and overall tone, but didn't love it like many other reviewers. It rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed June 13, 2018 / Posted July 6, 2018


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