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Leave No Trace

Adapted from Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment by director Debra Granik and screenwriting partner Anne Rosellini, Leave No Trace is a restrained yet profoundly moving portrait of the indomitable spirit that binds backwoods communities in the face of poverty and bureaucratic meddling. The film is shot through the inquisitive eyes of a teenage girl, who has been home-schooled since birth by her fiercely protective father and has never been allowed to socially integrate with other children. This emotionally bruised family chooses to live beneath the swaying canopy of a sprawling forest in Portland, Oregon, foraging for mushrooms and hunting rabbits in between practising concealment drills. Their seemingly idyllic existence is reminiscent of the 2016 comedy drama Captain Fantastic starring Viggo Mortensen but also harks back to Granik's Oscar-nominated second feature, Winter's Bone, which introduced audiences to Jennifer Lawrence. Like that picture, Leave No Trace explores bonds between troubled parents and resourceful children living on the fringes of society, and the harsh sacrifices that are sometimes made in the name of love. Granik unearths another mesmerising raw talent in 18-year-old New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who beautifully conveys her character's fierce loyalty to her father and the pent-up grief and confusion that ultimately sets her free on the path to womanhood. She plays Tom, who has learnt to live off the land and avoid detection thanks to her old man Will (Foster). Occasionally, father and daughter traipse into town to collect Will's prescribed medication for his post-traumatic stress disorder, which the war veteran sells to pay for the essentials that Mother Nature can't provide. One afternoon, a jogger catches a glimpse of Tom in the undergrowth and authorities storm the forest with sniffer dogs. "Where's your home?" a concerned social worker called Jean (Dana Millican) asks Tom. "With my Dad," calmly replies the girl. "It's not a crime to be unhoused but it is illegal to live on public land," explains Jean, who relocates the pair to a farm where Will fells trees and Tom experiences the first pangs of hormone-addled curiosity about a boy. However, personal demons that drove Will into the wilderness beckon him to return. Contrary to the title, Leave No Trace is a deeply affecting meditation on unconventional parenting, which leaves an indelible mark on the heart and provokes animated debate about whether Will's rejection of suburban comforts is ultimately in his child's best interests. Foster puts himself through the emotional wringer, catalysing a believable screen chemistry with the mercurial McKenzie. Granik's picture lacks an emotional crescendo or anything that comes close to narrative thrust. The tormented characters don't know where they are going but there is both beauty and heart-breaking simplicity in the gentle ebb and flow of their odyssey.