It’s rare you see something so powerful emerge from that so inscrutable.
Ben Foster, now a force in Hollywood to be reckoned with following phenomenal turns in the likes of Hell or High Water, is near-matched only by Thomasin McKenzie, a name you will be hearing a lot more.
Depicting a father and daughter who have made their home off the grid in the American wilderness, the former of whom, a veteran, is evidently suffering from severe PTSD, soon come to face challenges to their socially unacceptable yet abundantly peaceful way of life. Foster, a pained visage throughout, is a hugely empathetic figure. Due to his fairly sustained and equable characterisation however and absent the wide character arc of his counterpart, Foster’s father is never so relatable nor moving as that evinced by McKenzie, playing the teenage daughter increasingly sympathetic to more modern semblances of life.
The immediately believable dynamic between the pair propels a sense of investment and intrigue that persists throughout this latest feature from Winter’s Bone Director Debra Granik. A key sequence, featuring Foster’s dad on a production line for a set of soon to be Christmas trees, manages a subtle symbolism and imagery that more than conveys, among much else, the ethos of this film without being distracting nor heavy-handed. To this end, much is imparted by glances or that otherwise endemic to the action and daily goings-on, with Granik permitting her leads to render years of perseverance and bonding through often noiseless interactions and practised responses to visual cues. On the seldom instances where characters do explicitly state their thoughts or feelings, it’s organic to the sequence and a logical consequence of that which preceded it rather than relying on any thankfully absent and unnecessary exposition.
Not dissimilar plot-wise to Captain Fantastic which screened at the Sydney Film Festival two years ago, whereas the Viggo Mortensen vehicle expounded all too frequently on the philosophical and indeed practical underpinnings of living in such isolation, Leave No Trace, in the not infrequent and enforced absence of that which made the pair’s daily existence so especial otherwise permits the audience to acclimatise and gradually endear themselves to the choices this family makes.
With a searing ending to boot, Leave No Trace is not just a highlight of the Sydney Film Festival, but of the year so far.