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Read: Leave No Trace is a masterful piece of filmmaking

Imagine what it would be like to live truly ‘off-grid.’ To have an almost feral existence hunting and gathering food while shunning other human contacts as much as possible. It’s an interesting thought experiment and while it might seem like a romantic way of living, the reality of it might not be.

In Leave No Trace, director Debra Granik explores the story of Will (Ben Foster), a US Army veteran who lives just such a life with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). We know little of their previous existence, but we find out Tom’s mother is dead, and Will suffered some trauma as a soldier in a war somewhere.

Their life in a forest park in Oregon seems idyllic in a way and they seem to have adapted to it perfectly. Will has educated his daughter well, both in bushcraft and survival skills, but also in standards ways such as English and mathematics.  Occasionally they have to venture into the city for some supplies and money from Veteran Affairs, but most of the time they hide away from the world.

Inevitably they are caught and are put through a bureaucratic process of establishing their mental fitness and more importantly to ensure that Tom is not being abused. At this point, the meddling of the government seems overbearing and intrusive, and our sympathies are definitely with Will and Tom. Well-meaning social workers and others try to establish them in their own home and a community, but tensions mount as Will, in particular, has a deep need to be away from civilisation.

The film is an exquisite exploration of human relationships and how society defines what is a natural and normal way of living.

It is also an indictment on the failure of communities to understand and recognise the effects of war on veterans and the difficulties they face when back on home soil.

Granik’s film is beautifully shot and she lets the story unfold in an organic way. Foster and McKenzie are the consummate choices for the roles and their chemistry on screen is wonderful to witness.

It is no surprise that McKenzie plays her part so well as she is part of the New Zealand Harcourt acting dynasty, but she brings her own sense of self to the role of Tom.

As a young Kiwi woman, McKenzie is utterly convincing as an American teenager beginning to make her own decisions and form her own view of the world. Her Tom is an intelligent, loving and yet subdued adolescent. She enables Tom to appear perfectly at ease in the beautiful yet remote landscape she inhabits.

In watching this film, one feels a huge empathy for Will and the other vets who have self-ostracised themselves from the world. This is especially true when the desire for freedom and disconnection collides with the expectations and rules that delineate what are acceptable ways of living and more importantly raising children.

Granik has created a haunting masterpiece with Leave No Trace. Best of all, she has chosen to avoid a cheesy ending for her film and instead delivers an unexpected, bittersweet conclusion that is entirely plausible and satisfying.

New Zealand International Film Festival

27th and 28th July – Civic Theatre, Auckland

Leave No Trace

109 Minutes

Starring:  Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey

Directed by: Debra Granik



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