Debra Granik’s new film works best when it doesn’t allow the purity of its empathy to get in the way of its critique of the systems that let down its central pair, the PTSD-suffering war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his 13 year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The two endeavor to sustain an existence away from the machinations of society in a forested Portland park, and an early scene of Will being administered a 435-question personality test suggests Granik’s intention to expose the inadequacies of the institutions that this country relies on to reintegrate the disenfranchised.
But this becomes merely a marginal theme of Leave No Trace, which is fine if you don’t think a film following the social problems exacerbated by America’s two wars has the responsibility to be more assertively political. As Will’s PTSD takes on a greater presence in the narrative, and as Granik’s survivalist two-hander swells into a fuller portrait of America’s lower class and its alternative economies, the broad strokes of humanism here feel a bit too simplistic. What saves the film, then, is the strength of its two leads, and the intricacies of the relationship between them. Foster in particular does career-best work in a role that gives the actor’s usual tics, and the barely suppressed anxieties governing them, an acute emotional and psychological focus.
Published as part of BAMcinemaFest 2018 | Dispatch 1.