October 1, 2018  (Web Review)

Leave No Trace

Universal, 110 min., PG, DVD: $22.99, Blu-ray: $29.99, Oct. 2

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

For years, PTSD-afflicted veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) have lived off the grid in Forest Park, a nature reserve near Portland, OR. Adept in survival skills, they pick berries, mushrooms, and plants to eat, cook over a wood fire, catch rainwater to drink, and sleep in a small tent in their forest sanctuary. Aside from occasional supply trips into town, they avoid all contact with the outside world. But when Tom is spotted by a hiker, park rangers take the pair into custody. After initially separating father and daughter, subjecting each to respectful yet intensive evaluations, a concerned social worker (Dana Millican) relocates Will and Tom into a small, furnished house on a Christmas tree farm, urging them to rejoin society’s mainstream. Tom learns to ride a bike and befriends a boy (Isaiah Stone) who raises rabbits. When Will gets restless, they move north to a rural Washington state co-op, where Tom learns about beekeeping and appreciates neighborly hospitality. Will is a devoted father, yet no matter where they go he stubbornly plots their escape back into the wilderness, while Tom subtly yearns for shelter and security. Based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, the bittersweet conflict here pits Will’s rebellious desire for isolation against Tom’s yearning for stability and community. Delving into his traumatized character’s understated complexity, Foster radiates anxiety mixed with melancholy, while New Zealand newcomer McKenzie exudes sensitivity and determination. Director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) creates a compelling, compassionate coming-of-age character study, empathizing equally with father and daughter. Highly recommended. [Note: DVD/Blu-ray extras include behind-the-scenes vignettes (16 min.), a “Location Scout Photo Gallery” (5 min.), a production featurette (3 min.), and deleted scenes (3 min.). Bottom line: a solid extras package for a fine character-driven drama.] (S. Granger)