Westerly – a review series: Leave No Trace

August 2, 2018

When Dr. Nancy West, a longtime Ragtag member and Professor of English at The University of Missouri, offered to write about Ragtag films for our website, we immediately said yes. We love talking about films just about as much as we love watching them—relating them to our lives, our favorite films, probing their philosophical depths and plot holes, and sharing other works by the same filmmakers and actors. But writing about them? We don't have time! So, enter Doctor West!

You can think of these as reviews, thought pieces, or inspirations for your own discussions and exploration with friends and cinema staff.

And, yes, viewer be advised: major plot points are discussed below.


Leave No Trace may be my favorite film of the year. It’s by Debra Granik, the same director who made Winter’s Bone (otherwise known as Missouri: Land of Meth and Squirrel Hunters). I remember watching Winter’s Bone at Ragtag eight years ago, blown away by its performances, small-scale storytelling, and the documentary way it depicted an off-the-grid community. I had the same reaction to Leave No Trace, though I think it’s an even better film: bolder, quieter, and subtler.

For those of you who haven’t yet seen Leave No Trace, I’ll provide a bite-sized summary. Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), live in the woods of Forest Park, a 5200 nature preserve in Portland, Oregon. The opening sequences of the film convey that they have been happy there, attuned to nature and each other. They grow vegetables, play chess, build fires, read outdated encyclopedias. All seems well enough until local authorities pick them up, forcing them to “adapt” to the outside world. Leave No Trace is based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, My Abandonment, which was itself inspired by the astonishing story of a father and daughter who lived, undetected, in the park for four years.

Like Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace is a character-driven movie. And yet one of its strengths—though some of you may disagree—is its refusal to provide a backstory on Will and Tom. We never learn how they became homeless, nor which war Will served in. We’re never told what caused the PTSD that obviously forces his need for isolation nor what happened to Tom’s mother. “I wish I could remember her,” Tom says—and that sad vacancy remains just that. It’s rare to find such gaps in a Hollywood film, especially one whose subject is homelessness. Social exclusion always begs the question of what caused it (and, in film, tends to engender that overused technique known as the flashback; thankfully, we don’t get a single one here).

An equally daring aspect of Leave No Trace is how it pares down dialogue. Will and Tom are quiet characters; in fact, most of the characters in Leave No Trace are quiet (now here’s an interesting question: why is it that some of 2018’s most memorable films—Wonderstruck, A Quiet Place, and now Leave No Trace—employ so much silence?).  And yet, despite the wordlessness, I felt like I knew these two characters and believed in the deep, loving bond between them. Much of this goes to Granik’s direction, but it is also due to Foster and McKenzie, whose performances feel almost symbiotic.

After seeing a preview of Leave No Trace weeks ago, I was skeptical, worried it would be yet another preachy film about the shallowness of contemporary culture. But Leave No Trace isn’t a sociological treatise. It’s an allegory, a story about human existence that contains any number of stories within it. Coming-of-age, quest, tragedy, journey and return: they’re all there, within the silences.