Leave No Trace is an odd little film for me to review because it’s good, but I don’t think quite as good as everyone else is saying, critics I think of as being hard to please are shouting its praise loud enough so that even those who live in the woods can hear tell of how good it is; and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes is something to go amiss. I myself cannot go that far, there are things about it I come very close to loving but don’t quite get there, I do feel lucky this time around that I didn’t outright dislike the film everyone else is loving to bits and be “that guy” but I’m still not sure what it was this film did that blew everyone else away; even if I still thought it was time well spent – like I said, an odd film to review.
What we have here is the story of a PTSD afflicted war veteran father who lives out in the woods with his daughter, despite what that implies they wash, read and maintain good order, he has educated her himself and they seem to have relatively peaceful lives. Beyond that I feel like giving away anymore would be spoiler territory, just know the plot goes to various places from there, I went in knowing what you would think only necessary for a brief summary but it still felt like too much as I was watching it.
What I liked is the film’s handling of the “feels”, everything designed to tug at your emotions works, the performances are believable and a real draw, tense moments feel tense, eerie moments feel eerie and heartfelt tender moments are just so. Ben Foster made me forget what it was he did that annoyed the general consensus way back when he wasn’t considered all that good, here he comes across as someone who, you would think, has already won an Oscar and is simply reminding people why he deserved it in case they forgot; his performance is heart-breaking and highly sympathetic.
An actress named Thomasin McKenzie plays his daughter and apparently she’s been in a few things before this, which I am unfamiliar with but if the right people see her in this then she’s definitely going places. Young naïve characters like this are often extremely annoying because the actors or the director try to cute them up, make the naiveté invoke smiles intended for puppies; but there is none of that to be found here. When she’s in danger, I didn’t scoff, I legitimately cared and felt uncomfortable; her lack of familiarity with the real world was not irritating but rather quite involving.
Everything I’ve just mentioned is worth recommending the film on, it’s an interesting story with good performances, good editing and a subtext I often ponder in my own life, society can be as toxic as thick chemical smoke and often treats its inhabitants like faceless slaves but any who wish to leave it behind are forced right back in and made to conform against their will. It gets one to think about deliberate choices like the ones made by the characters here, what is homelessness beyond its legal definition and why is the almighty government so offended when someone just wants a break from it all; why does it suddenly care so much?
But there are other things I’m quite mixed on, at first glance I thought the cinematography was great but it wasn’t long before I noticed it was lacking in cinematic language, I felt a lurching halt when certain things weren’t shot in a way I felt they needed to be in order to be effective, a character recovering from emotional trauma is given a wide when I couldn’t help but feel the camera should have been closer. That sounds like a nit pick but it is so much more important than most seem to realise and if they didn’t make me stop and think about what a scene could have done to improve its emotional payoff or cinematic language then I would say a word.
I’m also not too sure if I’m going to remember this film for years to come, it does lack real grit or a nasty edge of some kind that, I think, I really could have done with, it’s rated PG and I’m not sure why, a film like this should be relentless and unforgiving, it doesn’t exactly play it safe but it missed out on some real opportunities to, well, get real for lack of a better word. Not that it doesn’t feel real, like I said earlier, tense moments are tense but there’s empty room where it could have done so much more.
I liked the ending very much but the scenes building up to it felt like the film knew it was running out of steam, desperately trying to conjure up scenarios so that it could get to this ending in one piece, the third act feels slower than the rest of the film, and just when you think they’ve made a really ballsy move to eradicate any sense of safety the film quickly recovers and does the exact opposite of maintaining its tension by implementing even more safety, grinding the pacing to a violent stop.
Leave No Trace is a good film but that’s it, I don’t need to see it again, it has good acting, reasonably good visuals and a good story but lacks grit or edge, I liked it for what it was but I’m also frustrated that it didn’t reach its true potential. A film to recommend that isn’t bad at all, but it could’ve been better – I think.