A Few Thoughts on Leave No Trace

leave no trace movie poster

I asked the question when we were about 4 minutes away from the toy store where the teen works. We were heading there for the start of her 10am – 4pm shift this morning.

I wish we had longer to discuss “Leave No Trace” and I wish there was a recording of our brief but superb conversation about the true antagonist of the superb film.

The girls and I caught the “Leave No Trace” trailer before “Hearts Beat Loud” last week and I was sold on the dad & daughter tale in an instant. The hairs on my arms were raised and a lump formed in my throat. I rested my head on my right hand which was curled up loosely and pressed against my mouth. My eyes were transfixed upon the lush green on the screen and the love up there too. I could tell this was going to be a special film, with emotional performances from its actors. I was still stoked for “Hearts Beat Loud”, of course, but was suddenly and quite unexpectedly smitten with “Leave No Trace”. It was as if that trailer, in under two minutes flat, transported me deep into the woods of Portland, Oregon. I snapped out of it, quickly jotted down its name because I can never remember the titles of movies previewed before the feature, and prepared to sing along with another on-screen dad and daughter set, Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman.

All four of us saw “Leave No Trace”, the new movie by director/writer Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) on opening night, last night in Philadelphia.

The 7pm screening at the Landmark Ritz East came with a complimentary post-movie Q&A with Granik and co-writer/producer Anne Rosellini, so I bought the tickets straightaway and down the city we drove. We left early enough to avoid heinous Jersey Shore traffic and early enough to catch the matinee of Three Identical Strangers at the Ritz Five then have a delish meal at The Khyber Pass Pub before eventually settling in for the main attraction; a smile on my face, the Khyber’s heavenly gumbo and a Kutztown craft root beer in my belly.

The film ended, the credits rolled, and the lights came on as the two filmmakers emerged with microphones of dubious quality in hand. I had something to ask Granik and Harrison but had to pee so god damn badly, since before even the midway point of the film but our row was full and we were seated centrally in it. I was holding it but just barely.

Ultimately I declined to raise my hand for fear of extending the Q&A any further and the dam busting in my down-belows.

What I wanted to know was two fold (a fancy way of saying I fully intended to cram two disparate questions into one. See: not wanting to extend the Q&A).

First, the use of animals (bunny, horse, bees, dog) in “Leave No Trace” felt like a stand in from the warmth of familial embrace and the love & comfort of home, both concepts it seemed Tom (played elegantly by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) was lacking and also for which the teenage girl was coming to understand just how much she was longing. Basically, I was longing for confirmation of my cinematic instincts there.

Second, and this is what I asked my own teenage daughter this morning, was a follow up to two other audience member queries as to what or who Granik believed was the film’s antagonist and a simple thankful remark for stocking her picture with an abundance of decency in the form of the peripheral characters.

We, the modern, maybe-jaded “Leave No Trace” audience, are the film’s chief antagonist. That’s my take. The movie features, startlingly, only decent people acting in decent, kind ways; from the social services reps to the truck drivers and everyone in between, they all are so clearly trying to do good and do right by each other. It is glorious to behold but emotionally unsettling, and this is why it is us, art house film viewers who while watching “Leave No Trace” internally cringe at the introduction of every new face for fear that she or he or they will be the one to take advantage, to harm, to bring misery and pain to Tom and/or Will, who ultimately give the film its most intense knife’s edge tension.

But no one is out to do harm, there are no baddies, and that feels contrary to what we know and expect from film and, frankly, from life.

Granik uses us (not in a bad way, mind you) in order to put forward a genuinely decent batch of people in a linear narrative that is rather devoid of real conflict or arc after the opening sequence. We ourselves, along with moving performances by everyone who graces the screen during the 109 minutes, propel the gorgeous film with our own angst and foreboding, and that in and of itself is quite an achievement.

I cannot recommend “Leave No Trace” enough. It’s PG and it is a quiet, remarkable piece of art, so take your kids and talk to them after the film about what it means to have a home, to be in a loving supportive family, to be cared for, to be decent to others, and ultimately, to “think your own thoughts”.

Read more about “Leave No Trace” and star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in the Los Angeles Times.

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