Quick review: It is sooo good. It is sooo slow. Do not go thinking you will get a lively adventure or involved drama. It’s too real for either of those. So it may be rated PG, but I wouldn’t take anyone under 10. And even then I think 10 is pushing it, unless they have a reason to be interested in PTSD or veteran’s affairs or the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. But it is deeply moving and timely, so yeah, do the thing. Bring tissues.
Now for spoilers, though one cannot really spoil this movie. It’s intense, ya’ll. But it’s intense in a slow burn kind of way. Whole swaths of the story are told in silence, in the soundtrack, and in the visual. The screenplay is largely informed by several books written on the subject of veterans struggling with PTSD including the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, which I have not read, much to my soon-to-be-rectified shame.
The comfortable silence and the nearly effortless relationship between Tom (Thomasin Mckenzie) and her dad, Will (Ben Foster) is built in the first ten minutes, and we are instantaneously dropped into the ever present conflict of the life they lead. Staying hidden is a must as they are squatters on public land. They don’t have access to much beyond what they can forage. And while dad is content with his solitude, he still plagued by the nightmares and paranoia that characterize much of PTSD. Tom, on the other hand, is a teenage girl. ‘Nuff said there. Tom is getting older and her appetite is increasing, she is ranging farther from camp, daring to come closer to the people that work around them. She recognizes that her dad is different, that their life is different, but she is convinced that it doesn’t really lack much, at least not consciously, not yet.
When park improvements bring nosey joggers and then the park rangers with dogs and a social worker crashing down on them, Will is forced to face his demons and hide in socially acceptable plain sight in order to stay with Tom. She’s not abused or neglected, she’s been well educated in the prettiest possible home school ever, and though there may be parts of her social development that have suffered she’s still pretty well rounded with a great sense of humor and a compassionate disposition. She is, in essence, the perfect comfort/service critter ever.
But as with much mental illness, PTSD isn’t really curable so much as manageable. And that management takes a willingness to undergo treatment and therapy together, to sacrifice comfort long-term, and to adjust one’s expectations. Will won’t do any of those things. So when their new situation becomes untenable: too much paper work, demands that Tom attend school, and Tom’s own need to explore new people and places with the natural curiosity of a teenager combine to drive Will to pull up stakes and run back to the wild.
But the park is no longer an option, the state of Oregon is looking for Tom if not Will, and they are low on resources. Heading north into Washington, they find themselves lost at high elevation. Rather than being dad’s faithful companion, Tom becomes a liability, and nearly freezes to death. AND THIS KIND OF STUFF JUST KEEPS GOING!! Remember, so so slow.
But all of it is really real, man! When you want a stoic guy, wrestling with his inner demons, so that all of the acting is done in the eyes, you cast Ben Foster. And though this isn’t her first rodeo, per say, Thomasin is a relative newcomer (though IMDB has her cast as “Astrid” in Battle of the Five Armies. ALL THE BROWNIE POINTS to someone who can tell me what scene she’s in…) and she is delicious. She is subtle, but insistent. She has the presence to make a scene feel full even when there is nothing but her sitting in a chair!! She’s so so good. I want to be her friend. We can brush each other’s hair and make scones.
You know this whole thing is creeping toward the inevitable: Will won’t change, Tom will realize that she can’t live as his pet/companion forever, and there will be a parting of the ways. But when it comes it is gut wrenchingly beautiful, and takes you by surprise. Not in the event, but in the how and when. He knows that what he has been doing to her, keeping her isolated, has been selfish and has hobbled her socially. But he also knows that he’s given her the tools to think for herself, to seek learning, and the strength and skills to care for herself. How many 16 year olds could legit survive in the wilderness like her?! But also, how many 16 year olds would think that $35.00 would be enough for a month’s rent?
I mentioned before that huge expanses of this movie are told visually, and if setting can be a character then the Oscar goes to the Pacific Northwest. This is the most beautiful film I have seen at least this year, probably in the last two… I mean, I see a lot of movies, so I’m betting there’s one that I’d be like, “Oh yeah, that was super lovely.” But for Leave No Trace the beauty is layered. A crafted scene progression, shots done close and far, focused and fuzzy, tell the emotional story. Yet all of this artifice takes place overlaid on nearly pristine acreage and unobtrusive homesteads. It takes zero work to make Oregon and Washington awe inspiring. Then you throw some people toting their packs in the mix. That’s a wrap. Only such a stunning landscape can carry the level of silence this film relies on.
Go for the thought provoking concepts, the realities of those that fought and cannot stop fighting. Stay for the picturesque cinematography and the enchanting performances. Do not expect to have fun, expect to have gratitude and compassion and new eyes.
Until the next time, enjoy the show.